Democrats call Trump’s bluff on infrastructure spending

Senators unveil their own $1 trillion package that looks very different from President Trump’s.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). CREDIT: AP Photo/Zach Gibson
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY). CREDIT: AP Photo/Zach Gibson

“America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay,” President Trump declared in his inauguration speech last week. “We will build new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways all across our wonderful nation.”

Trump had made repeated mentions of the state of the country’s infrastructure on the campaign trail and pledged to create a $1 trillion package to address it.

When his team released details of his plan, however, it didn’t live up to the promise. Instead, his advisers promised to offer tax credits to private firms that are interested in infrastructure projects with profit potential — in other words, the ability to charge Americans user fees and tolls — that would almost certainly do nothing to address the most dire upgrades.

To call Trump on this discrepancy, Senate Democrats will offer up their own $1 trillion plan.

Democratic Senators Charles Schumer (NY), Bill Nelson (FL), Patrick J. Leahy (VT), Ron Wyden (OR), Sherrod Brown (OH), Maria Cantwell (WA.), and Thomas R. Carper (DE) plus Independent Bernie Sanders (VT) will unveil a package on Tuesday that would have the federal government directly spend $1 trillion to upgrade infrastructure itself, rather than hand out tax credits to private companies.


The proposal will address a number of infrastructure needs, not just those that can be privatized with user fees attached. On top of $210 billion to upgrade roads and bridges, it will call for $110 billion to repair water and sewer systems, $180 billion for railways and bus systems, $100 billion for energy infrastructure, $75 billion to fix schools, $20 billion to install more broadband capacity, $20 billion to go to public and tribal land maintenance, and $10 billion to upgrade Veterans Affairs hospitals.

“Our urban and rural communities have their own unique set of infrastructure priorities, and this proposal would provide funding to address those needed upgrades that go beyond the traditional road and bridge repair,” Schumer said. “Each day, too many students attend school in buildings so decrepit the pipes leach lead into their drinking water, our country’s heroes sit in VA hospitals that are crumbling beneath them, and millions in rural communities cannot kick-start local business because they lack access to the critical high-speed Internet they need.”

These are the types of projects that would almost certainly go unaddressed under Trump’s proposal. There is a universe of projects that can generate revenue for a private entity: roads that are turned into tollways, small airports that charge private planes usage fees, water systems that are taken over by private utilities that then charge higher rates. But this model of partial privatization can’t apply to rail projects, public school facility upgrades, land maintenance, levee building, and other public projects.

There’s also little chance that a tax credit plan will truly incentivize new projects that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and therefore induce builders to hire new workers. Thus the economic benefit of Trump’s plan isn’t likely to appear. And while Trump’s advisers promised that their plan won’t cost the government anything, the real price would be passed down to any users who have to pay more in tolls and fees to utilize infrastructure.

Democrats will directly counter that structure. Trump’s plan has “got to be bold, large, it’s got to have new spending, new expenditures,” Schumer told the Washington Post. “It can’t just be tax breaks because that won’t get enough done.”

The senators will propose paying for their plan by closing tax loopholes, although they don’t go into specifics.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence Trump may be prepared to whittle down his own call for a $1 trillion package, particularly as Republicans have been wary of the high dollar figure. Real estate developer Richard LeFrak, who is co-leading an infrastructure council to advise Trump, said recently, “I think he’d like it to start with a ‘T,’ but I think the number I’ve heard tossed around is around $550 billion.”