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President Trump Says His Infrastructure Plan Would ‘Empower’ States. But Some Argue It Would Hurt Them

February 12, 2018, 10:21 PM UTC

President Trump unveiled his infrastructure plan on Monday, and it is heavily crafted around the idea of states’ creating their own projects. But experts and authorities in some states are a apprehensive about how the program might play out.

The plan, which the Administration unveiled as a starting point for negotiations in Congress, calls for investing $200 billion in federal funds in infrastructure projects, which it says would create $1.5 trillion in investments over the next decade. Half of that money comes in the form of incentives for states to establish their own infrastructure projects. But the federal government would only invest a maximum of 20% in these projects, leaving it to the states to find other sources of revenue, like imposing higher tolls on roads.

“Washington will no longer be a roadblock to progress; Washington will be your partner,” Trump said at a meeting with various state officials Monday while describing his plan.

Some experts, such as Marcus Lemon, an attorney at Polsinelli and former chief counsel to Federal Highway Administration from 2007 to 2009, say this proposal could actually help state and local budgets, because it provides more clarity about federal contributions, thereby forcing them to adapt accordingly. But others argue the proposed mechanism, if implemented into law, could be harmful to certain states, particularly those battling budget shortfalls. In 2017, that was 22 states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, including at least 10 that voted for President Trump in the 2016 election.

“I think many states would have a serious challenge in providing 80% of funding for viable infrastructure projects,”said one lobbyist closely involved in tracking the issue, referring to the component of the White House plan that caps federal investment at 20%. “It would unfortunately create a situation where we would have some states who are better than others and the long-term viability of a national infrastructure network would be at stake.”

The lobbyist said that rural states would be most adversely impacted, noting that even though Trump’s plan includes $50 billion in federal funding for rural infrastructure projects, that may be a high enough compensatory figure. And governors and lawmakers, mainly Democrats, were quick to seize on the first point about the potential negative impacts to certain states.

“[Trump’s] plan would essentially throw states a few Legos when what we really need is concrete and steel,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Chairman of the Democratic Governor’s Association, whose state was the site of a fatal Amtrak crash at the end of 2017. “His $1.5 trillion plan expects state, local and private partners to pick up more than 85 percent of the tab. States cannot and should not bear the burden of building a 21st century infrastructure system on our own.”

“The president’s infrastructure proposal would do very little to make our ailing infrastructure better, but would put unsustainable burdens on our local government and lead to Trump tolls all over the country,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said the plan is ” simply designed to let the President take credit for the investments, while sticking states and localities with the bill.” Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy argued that the plan forced states like his own “to spend money they don’t have, or else sell off highways and railroads to Wall Street.”

Overall, the reaction seemed largely divided along partisan lines,with Republicans backing it and Democrats opposing it — with some exceptions —despite the fact that infrastructure was once touted by both parties as something that could be a bipartisan initiative. Of the 24 state and local officials Trump hosted at the White House for an infrastructure initiative, for instance, just 5 were from the Democratic party.

The governor’s offices of several states with rural areas who have struggled with budget shortfalls since 2017, like Missouri, Ohio, and West Virginia, did not respond to request for comment. But Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, whose state faced a revenue shortfall of $116 million last year, was effusive about the White House’s plan during the meeting Monday.

“This new plan is going to be, really, the catalyst that will change states like Mississippi, move us to that new level,” Bryant told Trump. “I hope, a hundred years from now they’re thinking about the day that we were in this room and what happened this day.”