Trump’s leaked infrastructure plan would deepen urban inequality in the US

Who really wins?
Who really wins?
Image: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump pledged that, if elected, he would implement a $1 trillion plan to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. He promised to reinvest in inner cities and rejuvenate economically impoverished urban areas.

But a draft of Trump’s infrastructure plan leaked this week (Jan. 22) to Axios neglects poorer neighborhoods and cities, and instead outlines funding principles that would use national resources to fuel development in already-wealthy metro areas. “Basically the whole structure [of this proposal] is oriented around cities that are not only wealthy but also economically healthy,” says Yonah Freemark, a transportation and urbanism expert and PhD student at MIT. “But for cities that are not economically healthy, it will be very hard to make this kind of funding stream work for them.”

The leaked document, which remains unverified by the White House, restricts federal funding to covering only 20% of any total infrastructure project cost. That aligns with Trump’s 2018 budget draft from last May, which called for $200 billion of federal “seed” money to be allocated over 10 years to spur $1 trillion of total spending on infrastructure.

The clearest evidence of the plan’s preference to support wealthier cities is the proposed criteria for evaluating whether a project should receive federal funds: The ability for a project to secure non-federal financing is given a weight of 70% while the potential economic and social returns of the project is weighted at just 5%.

This is a “radically different approach” than how projects were evaluated under the Obama administration, says Freemark. Under Obama, a project was assessed mostly on its merits, such as whether it would address poverty or improve the environment. Trump’s proposed plan nearly eliminates merit as a consideration. “In my mind that sounds to me like infrastructure for infrastructure’s sake,” he says. ”It isn’t really about the public interest. It’s about making money.”

To qualify for a piece of the federal pie, cities would have to come up with non-federal funds from one of two sources: either their own revenue from state and local taxes or outside investment from willing private partners. Both options disadvantage poorer cities. “If you’re in a place like Detroit where the market is not in great condition and there isn’t, for example, much traffic congestion,” says Freemark, “then it could be difficult to attract private companies to pay for the new toll roads if they don’t feel like people are going to pay the toll.”

Essentially, cities already capable of covering 80% of its projects’ costs are more likely to win federal support. “It’s like a redistribution of the national resources toward cities that already have more money,” Freemark says.

Trump’s proposed plan also privileges high-income neighborhoods over low-income ones within a given city, Freemark says. The leaked document requires transit projects to have a high return on investment as a condition for receiving federal support. In practice this means that if a city wanted federal money for a new subway line, it would need to show that the line would boost the area’s property values enough to cover the project’s cost. This requirement disincentivizes transit development in low-income neighborhoods where property values are not increasing. Those are often the neighborhoods that need public transit the most, says Freemark, to connect residents to better economic opportunities.