By: Ilan Hirschfield and the Board of the College Democrats | Opinions  | 

The Road to Heaven or Hell? A Brief Critique of President Trump's Infrastructure Plan

On the evening of Tuesday, August 15, 2017, President Donald Trump held a remarkably heated press conference outside Trump Tower in Manhattan in which he discussed the bloody clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters that precipitated the previous weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since watching a video of the conference, I have worried whether those who watched the conference remember that President Trump not only explored race relations on that night but also explored fixing the United States infrastructural system. While race relations hold strong relevance to American society, U.S. infrastructure does as well.

Given that Matthew Haller recently in this paper explored the other side of the coin through writing about American white nationalists’ occasionally intertwining racializing and anti-Semitic roots, I wanted to discuss President Trump’s infrastructure plan for the United States. While the strategy to fix the country’s ailing infrastructural system is reasonable enough, I disagree with part of it due to Mr. Trump’s lack of vision in anticipating said portion’s potential pitfalls and obstacles.

Now, you might ask yourselfwhat exactly constitutes infrastructure? According a statement published by a 1987 United States National Research Council panel, “public works infrastructure” refers to “both specific functional modes – highways, streets, roads, and bridges; mass transit; airports and airways; water supply and water resources; wastewater management; solid-waste treatment and disposal; electric power generation and transmission; telecommunications; and hazardous waste management – and the combined system these modal elements comprise.” Put succinctly, public infrastructure means the basic physical and organizational structures necessary to operate a society. Governments at the federal, state, and local levels have the charge of maintaining and developing an efficient and effective public infrastructure.

Unfortunately for its citizens, the United States finds itself running an ineffective public infrastructure. According to a study conducted last year by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association reported by USA Today, 58,495 out of 609,539 bridges in the USalmost ten percentwere considered structurally deficient and desperately in need of repairs. Inspecting the overall system sours the prospects even further. According to the “Infrastructure Report Card” released earlier this year by the American Society of Civil Engineers, a leading professional civil engineering society, the US’s public infrastructure received a hardly flattering grade of a D+.

Between 2015 and the present moment, Trump has made one fact (among many) very clear: the U.S. has a broken infrastructural system, and he wants to be the president to fix that system. He mentioned public infrastructure numerous times along the campaign trail, during the presidential debates, and since the election he has delivered three substantial speeches on the topic.

Trump put this desire on full display during a speech he gave at the Department of Transportation this past June. He highlighted the fact that environmental impact reviews can take upwards of five years, sometimes twenty years, to complete, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. While this response represents only one prong of Trump’s infrastructure plan, it holds significantly more credibility than “I have a plan. A very good plan. My plan is so good.”

Two months after giving this speech, Trump signed an executive order (EO 13807) directing federal agencies to coordinate those reviews, aiming to complete them within two years. The heart of Mr. Trump’s plan gives the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), an office within the White House, the authority to develop tools and scoring criteria to review and evaluate federal agencies’ speed and efficiency in processing project approvals. One of those tools, the “One Federal Decision,” mandates a “lead Federal agency” guiding each project through the review and authorization processes and ensuring that every single agency records each decision made connected to the project in one Record of Decision (ROD).

While Mr. Trump correctly deserves credit for crafting an ambitious plan containing concrete steps, the plan contains considerable potential procedural and environmental obstacles and problems.

For starters, Trump’s proposed “lead Federal agency” tool could lead to more, not less, administrative backlogging. Given that the CEQ will appoint a lead agency for a project, how much time will it have to make that decision? Must it exercise sufficient accountability, if any at all, through explaining its choice to the President or to Congress? Put differently, asking these questions uncovers a potential vicious cycle of announcing nominations and defending them, leading back to the drawing board should the President or Congress perceive the CEQ’s choice inappropriate given policy considerations.

In a similarly redundant and recursive manner, it remains unclear what advantage the ROD brings to the approval process beyond organizing every individual decision made about the project in one centralized area. The agencies involved with a project can simply communicate between themselves on decisions when information or questions relevant to two or more agencies arise.

While granting a thoughtful project approval requires such communication, it must take place in a context that treats each member as an equal working towards a common goal. While the reality of collaborative work dictates that some agencies will take a more involved role than others, appointing a de-facto “leader” Therefore, using a “lead agency” concept for projects undermines “underling” departments’ credibilities, posing a checks-and-balance-esque threat to their power as they stand independent from the lead agency.

The potential degradation of agencies does not stop there, though.

Granting the CEQ the authority to review agencies based on their performance in processing project approvals represents too large a surge in discretionary power. Effectively, the office can now freely critique agencies for dragging their feet on processing approvals. Even if those agencies have truly worked in a timely manner and can provide documentation supporting that claim, the CEQ will have still done its damage. Such potentially blistering critique of our government’s vital arteries threatens its public image, compounding on Mr. Trump’s already heated accusations leveled throughout his campaign, even at his own inauguration, that the federal government has effectively twiddled its thumbs for decades and brought about no effective changes.

However, since 1970, the U.S. government has brought about significant change in its environmental policy. On January 1st of that same year, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), outlining the nation’s environmental policies and goals, establishing provisions for federal agencies to enforce those policies and goals, and establishing the CEQ. Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), NEPA’s main drafter who led the bill through the Senate in 1969, wrote with an explicit purpose in mind of ensuring the equal weighting of environmental factors in federal agencies’ decision-making processes in the relevant policy areas. During his speech delivered in June of this year, Mr. Trump discussed how ensuring this equity supposedly went awry in writing the environmental report for a proposed eighteen-mile-long road in Maryland. The president briefly showed the audience the report, split between three immense binders. He leafed through its pages, mentioning in passing that no one would actually read the entire report. Trump also claimed that these dense reports could be replaced by “just a few simple pages” relaying the exact same information and that these reports “make you do unnecessary things.”

While Mr. Trump has a valid point in drawing attention to colossal environmental reports for infrastructure projects, ameliorating this splitting headache does not necessarily mean distilling reports down to, say, five pages or less. I have significant doubts that any Congressperson, Democrat or even Republican, would believe they have expressed fidelity to safeguarding the environment by enforcing such a page limit. Mr. Trump’s modifying his vision of how much he could speed up the infrastructure process without compromising on environmental considerations would likely lead to more legislators willing to get onboard with his plan, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (who took Scott Pruitt, nominee for administrator of the EPA, to task during his confirmation hearing regarding the strength to which human activity affects climate change) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) (who expressed significant concern about the environmental knowledge of Kathleen Hartnett White, during her confirmation hearing as chair of the CEQ, after she claimed skepticism of evidence linking carbon emissions to global warming). Such softer changes could include limits on time spent writing these reports and number of pages taken up for them.

Despite the fact that I just outlined the perceived flaws in part of Trump’s infrastructure plan, I do not point out those flaws in order to deride him. I point them out with the express intent of allowing quicker, yet still responsible, building of new infrastructure to occur, benefiting the entire nation in the process. As Ashley Halsey III reported for the Washington Post at the end of September of this year, health-care changes and tax reform experienced significant delays in development during the first nine months of this year. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the Democrats hoped to earn a desirable legislative win for both Congress and the White House in the form of a $500 billion tax dollar investment in infrastructure over the coming five years.

While Trump’s infrastructure plan represents only one policy in a myriad of choices, examining the obstacles can prompt Congress to meaningfully critique the plan in order to improve it, not necessarily to scrap it, and to partner with the President in crafting sound and thoughtful legislation. May our government help build America great again, one brick, pipe, and railway track at a time.