Tuesday, June 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Ten years ago, in one of the country’s most progressive cities, 13 people died in Minneapolis rush hour traffic when the Interstate 35 bridge spanning the Mississippi River collapsed, falling 115 feet to the water below. The victims were about as close to any cross-section of America you’re likely to find: Somali immigrants, a Mexican father, a young Native American, a Greek folk dancing instructor, a Cambodian native with Down’s syndrome, a white bakery truck driver.
That bridge collapse was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the country’s infrastructure problems, which have only gotten worse since then.
It’s understandable that candidate Donald Trump’s promise to spend $1 trillion fixing America’s infrastructure resonated with voters.
Now, however, the infrastructure package in President Trump’s budget proposal has been revealed to be a complete sham. And this isn’t just because it’s based on Pollyannaish growth levels of 3 percent.
The budget sets aside only $200 billion for infrastructure over the next decade, which will only make a dent in America’s infrastructure needs.
Meanwhile, the military will receive $639 billion, a wholly misplaced and unnecessary increase.
If “making America great again” were really the objective here, Trump would have set aside money for our country’s roads and bridges.
In 2016, there were 56,007 such structurally deficient, aging bridges that supported an average of 188 million trips every day.
The American Society of Civil Engineers says it will take an estimated $123 billion to address the nation’s backlog of bridge rehabilitation — money that comes from a federal Highway Trust Fund that’s been broken for nearly a decade.
With all surface transportation funding considered, that number soars to more than $2 trillion.
The ASCE’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card is, as President Trump might say, “sad!” America’s transit system received a D-minus, with drinking water, energy infrastructure, schools, roads, public parks, aviation, dams and hazardous waste management all rated no better than D-plus.
The biggest problem with Trump’s budget is the magical thinking. The funding gap for surface transportation alone is $1.1 trillion, and that’s if Trump really wants to fix it. He doesn’t.
“President Trump’s campaign promises on infrastructure are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges,’’ Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement that condemned a proposed $96 billion cut to the Highway Trust Fund, and $760 million desperately needed by Amtrak.
Trump’s cuts to the New Starts program approaches $1 trillion, wiping out capital investment in transit programs when public demand over two decades has increased by about a third. The truth is that there’s only $200 billion in federal funding spread across 10 years into 2027 and a mere $5 billion is planned for 2018 to “support” investment.
The shortfall is rooted in the fantasy that cash-strapped municipal and state authorities will pick up the slack.
It assumes they can count on user fees and tolls to cover the spread, and above all, that private investment and partnership are a viable strategy for bridge repairs and sewer upgrades, even though most infrastructure projects lack the revenue stream and return on investment needed to attract outside investors.
Nowhere is the chasm between Trump’s supposed businessman side and the “fiscal cliff” reality deeper than among middle Americans who voted for a president who’s failing them.
A 2010 cap on property taxes in Indiana, for example, was written as an amendment to the state’s constitution, so its Rust Belt cities cannot raise those taxes even to offset draconian federal funding cuts.
That’s a disaster not only for chronically struggling steel towns like Gary, but even for renaissance, new-economy towns like South Bend.
There, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has made headlines for using technology to address municipal government challenges.
But his innovations can’t make up for the city’s infrastructure shortfalls. South Bend now faces $1 billion in unfunded Environmental Protection Agency mandates to upgrade its aging sewer systems, which still has vintage water mains made from original wood.
System upgrade costs will pass to residents who can’t afford the bills, a growing problem across the United States detailed in the latest Circle of Blue report.
“There’s a cost in shifting to more local control,” says Chief Financial Officer Neil Guglielmo of Los Angeles in his report interview.
That’s especially true in scenarios where municipalities and states have to rely on federal matching grants to support infrastructure improvements. Even wealthy states like California have been forced to go, hat in hand, to Washington due to budget shortfalls.
For instance, after Trump’s $1 trillion plan was first voiced, California submitted a list of $100 billion in projects to fix aging infrastructure.
Perhaps the state’s biggest problem child is Los Angeles, where lack of investment and deferred maintenance have culminated to a point where city officials estimate it would cost at least $3.6 billion to repair the worst roads, $1.5 billion to fix the sidewalks, and $3 billion to replace old water pipes.
Given the fact that the city’s total annual budget could barely cover these needs, LA’s hopes to host the 2024 Olympic Games seem like nothing more than a pipe dream.
One would think that Trump would be eager to once again bring the glitz of the Olympics to American soil. Yet his budget will make the reparation of LA — not to mention the rest of the nation’s cities — all but impossible.
Beyond the immediate effects of the budget shortfall, however, Trump’s proposal is most chilling of all for its abandonment of a key principle in American politics: one that promises to invest in public goods so that clean water, quality schools and safe roads are available to all.
For the progressives who had seen an opportunity to work with the president on infrastructure investment, and for all the Americans who wanted finally to see repairs for their bridges, roads and tunnels, their hopes have now been stamped out for good.
Rafael Salazar is a freelance research consultant with a focus on the Latin American region and politics. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.