As far as Trump administration chaos goes, the departure of infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin — “to pursue new opportunities,” according to the White House official who briefed transportation reporters on it Tuesday — is not that big of a deal. But the fact that the top White House aide focused on infrastructure is leaving in the midst of what’s allegedly a White House push for its infrastructure plan is a good tell that there is, in fact, no real push for an infrastructure plan.
President Donald Trump gave a speech about it last week in Ohio that rapidly generated into off-topic rambling, and the plan itself does nothing to fix the country’s most urgent infrastructure problems.
But a promise to deliver some kind of $1 trillion infrastructure boost was a signature element of Trump’s 2016 campaign platform, and combined with his (broken) promise to avoid Medicaid cuts and deliver affordable health insurance coverage to all, helped explain why Trump was perceived by voters as the most ideologically moderate GOP nominee in a generation or two.
With Gribbin out, we can close the door on the never-ending “infrastructure week” and say definitively that nothing is happening here.
What’s Trump’s infrastructure plan was
Candidate Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, and the Trump White House swiftly began talking about a $1.5 trillion plan. But the actual plan rolled out in February is what we would normally describe as a $200 billion federal infrastructure plan, deconstructed into four parts:
- $100 billion in matching funds to be made available to states and cities on new, less generous terms (more on this later).
- A $50 billion rural block grant program that will be doled out to states based on the miles of rural roads and the extent of the rural population they have.
- A $20 billion fund for “projects of national significance,” meaning, according to a weekend background briefing with administration officials, “projects that can lift the American spirit, that are the next-century-type of infrastructure as opposed to just rebuilding what we have currently.”
- Another $20 billion to federal loan programs that underwrite private financing of profitable infrastructure projects.
- Finally, a $10 billion capital financing program that would fund the construction of federal office buildings and similar infrastructure for actual government use.
The key logic of this plan, to the extent that there is one, is that the $100 billion grant program is supposed to generate a total level of infrastructure investment far in excess of what’s currently spent by state and local governments.
Right now, federally funded highways (that’s interstates and other routes) are financed on the basis of an 80-20 federal-state split. Federally funded mass transit projects usually get a 50-50 split.
Trump’s proposal is to flip the 80-20 formula on its head and require that states and cities kick in at least $4 for every $1 in federal money they receive. This vision of a stingier matching formula is defensible — some experts feel the current formula leads to overinvestment in new highway projects with little transportation value — but the White House’s notion that it will lead to an actual surge in state and local infrastructure spending is difficult to support.
States and cities are generally more fiscally constrained than the federal government, not less so. The practical impact of making the matching formula stingier would be to generate fewer new gleaming roads, not more.
The really big question about Trump and infrastructure, ever since he won the election, had been whether he actually wanted to get something done on this or if it was just a campaign line. The February proposal answered that question pretty definitively — by mashing up Trump’s vague rhetoric with his staff’s conventional hard-right politics, they landed on a formula with no bipartisan appeal and no actual path forward. And now the person who crafted the plan is heading out the door having accomplished nothing.