02/01/2018

Trump's 'Hunger Games' plan for infrastructure

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Two essential ingredients are missing from the infrastructure plan outlined by the president in his Jan. 30 State of the Union address: First, he didn't mention funding for school construction, which is desperately needed as the nation's schools remain long overdue for repairs. And second, he didn't explain how the plan's costs would be covered, prompting public officials at the state and local levels to refer to the plan as the "Hunger Games" because it would set up a cruel fight for existing funds.

Advocates for school construction are seeking support for a $100 billion injection of federal funds over a decade to improve the quality of U.S. school buildings, the second-largest sector of public infrastructure investment after roads and highways. Half the nation's school buildings are at least 50 years old, and far too many suffer from faulty heating systems, lead pipes, dangerously poor air quality and literally crumbling facilities.

Damaged floor tiles in Baltimore

The AFT supports school infrastructure legislation already introduced in Congress—a House bill (H.R. 2475) sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and a Senate bill (S. 1674) sponsored by Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)—that would invest $100 billion in school infrastructure. These two bills have overwhelming support from congressional Democrats. Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), with encouragement from her AFT constituents in Alaska, also has encouraged a boost in school construction funding.

Meanwhile, as two Philadelphia elementary schools were forced to close last year because of advancing mold, Jerry Roseman, a school inspector and director of environmental science for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund and Union, proposes a way out: The PFT is developing a plan for transparency, standards and funding for healthier schools.

"Not only does decaying school infrastructure result in illness, but it also impacts performance. Students and staff get sick more often. They miss time from school," Roseman says. "We need decision-makers and politicians to listen to us and to help enact change."

As you may have guessed, the president's infrastructure talk is just talk. Mayors and other local officials fear the Trump administration plan for roads, bridges and tunnels would set up "a vicious, zero-sum scramble for a relatively meager amount of federal cash," according to Politico, something public employees are calling the Hunger Games. That's in large part because the administration has no plan to cover the costs. Administration officials say they will pay for the federal share with cuts elsewhere in the budget. They've actually rejected a proposal from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to increase the federal gasoline tax, and they're making no attempt to obtain any revenue for infrastructure from their overhaul of the tax code.

For example, Politico reports that Trump's plan would be bad news for a project to build a new tunnel and bridge between New York and New Jersey, with one source calling the plan "a direct repudiation of the federal role in building infrastructure." The administration's guidelines assert that "grant awards can't exceed 20 [percent] of total project cost," which a public employee familiar with the New York-New Jersey Gateway project said would be "too small to get the project going." He also compared Trump's plan to the Hunger Games, "pitting project against project, regardless of the merit."

In contrast, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have introduced the Bridge Investment Act (S. 2279), which would invest $75 billion over a decade into a new competitive grant program for repairing the nation's most dangerous bridges. This bill would authorize resources to improve the safety of America's structurally deficient or obsolete bridges, according to estimates suggesting that such a designation applies to nearly a quarter of U.S. bridges. NBC News reports that more than 50,000 bridges are falling apart across America.

White House infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin, a former Koch Industries employee, recently said the administration would not seek any new revenues for infrastructure, according the Center for American Progress. The president claims that $200 billion in repurposed funding, combined with federal funding cuts, would lead to $1.8 trillion in infrastructure projects, a notion that CAP calls "fantastical … fairy dust." Most of the real cost would seem to come from tolls and user fees.

What's more, CAP asserts that Trump's plan would gut environmental protections and silence citizens to benefit polluters. The plan would undercut 10 core environmental laws that protect the nation's air, water, wildlife and national parks. It would hollow out the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires that federal project sponsors consult with stakeholders. It also proposes changes to the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, making it easier for corporations to break ground while avoiding air- and water-quality protections. The administration will try to spin these environmental attacks as an effort to improve the permitting process.

Our allies in the building trades point out that any federal infrastructure plan should preserve labor standards and provide robust, sustainable federal investment over the long term. Likewise, the AFT supports a plan that would modernize all aspects of America's aging infrastructure to keep our communities safe and thriving, spur economic growth and strengthen the middle class.

[Annette Licitra/Baltimore Brew photo]