President Trump’s pledge to create a program that funds $1 trillion in new infrastructure programs has kicked off with numerous meetings but few firm decisions, beset by understaffing, bureaucratic challenges and major questions about how to pay for everything.
Trump promised in a February speech to Congress that a $1 trillion infrastructure rebuilding plan would create “millions of new jobs,” but few of those jobs are expected to materialize this year, because no firm deadlines have been set and much of the planning could spill into 2018.
Despite those challenges, the White House’s infrastructure team has become one of its broadest task forces, with Trump considering it a central plank of his promise to create more jobs. He has activated a team of White House and Cabinet agency officials to identify a wide range of infrastructure projects across the United States and come up with a way to fund them, launching the internal deliberations to design the $1 trillion package he promised on the campaign trail.
On Wednesday, Trump hosted an infrastructure-focused luncheon with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, General Atlantic chief executive William Ford and a number of others. On Tuesday, Trump discussed infrastructure with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
And on Capitol Hill at a Senate hearing Wednesday, highway officials and other interested parties aired some ideas for funding new projects.
Behind the scenes, a government-wide effort kicked off last week when White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn led a meeting with officials from 15 federal agencies and departments, pressing them to come up with answers to six planks for the infrastructure plan.
They were told they need to identify new projects; find existing projects that need help with completion; identify policy, regulatory and statutory issues that would need to be addressed; and finally come up with a way to pay for it all.
“We’re still kind of getting geared up,” a senior administration official said.
The quick shift from popular campaign promise to the bogged-down bureaucratic negotiation process is the latest test of Trump’s ability to pivot from thematic ideas to concrete action. He has already encountered logjams on tax policy, repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, and plans to force Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. border.
On infrastructure in particular, Trump faces challenges selling members of his party on his plans once they jell, given GOP resistance to government spending programs.
“This is going to take a lot of work in the administration and on Capitol Hill,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill staffer. “They don’t have the personnel right now to get that done.”
White House officials are hopeful that the infrastructure planning, even if it moves slowly, will gain ground through what they see as the methodical process they have put in place.
The agencies that attended last week’s meeting — working on issues such as transportation, housing and energy — are expected to continue meeting and planning, but the White House has not set any deadlines. White House officials envision that the projects could include building or rebuilding ports, roads, bridges and airports, expanding access to broadband and expanding access to housing.
The process that began at the meeting last week in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building represents a back-to-the-drawing-board moment following an exhaustive effort to identify infrastructure projects during the presidential transition.
Daniel Slane, an Ohio developer who worked on the infrastructure package for Trump during December and January, said he crafted a list of more than 50 projects and turned them over to Trump officials before he left the team on Jan. 20. These projects included expanding access to the Port of Baltimore and the development of a wind-power project in Oklahoma, among other things.
He said he has been frustrated by the slow start.
“It takes a long time to mobilize,” Slane said in an interview. “If you want to be moving dirt in the fall, you have to start now. Now the weeks are turning into months.”
Slane never had the authority, however, to expedite any projects, and the Trump team had long planned on taking a more comprehensive review of the project.
One of the biggest challenges officials face is finding a way to pay for the $1 trillion in projects. Infrastructure projects can be politically popular, but funding them is tricky, particularly as Republicans are torn about growing levels of federal debt.
Trump has said he wants the financing to be a combination of public and private money.
“As the president has said many times, strong public-private partnerships will also be key to revitalizing our country’s ruined roads, crumbling bridges and outdated airports,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday. “The government has wasted too much of the taxpayers’ money on inefficient and misguided projects. By looking at infrastructure from a businessperson’s perspective . . . we can restore respect for the taxpayer dollar and make the best investment.”
Public-private partnerships could include tax credits for developers, toll projects or government payments to private developers that issue debt to finance specific projects, among other things, a senior administration official said. No decision has been made on whether there will be a uniform funding plan or whether the White House will pursue different funding models for different projects, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations are private.
Potentially complicating matters, Trump has said the infrastructure plan must be revenue-neutral, meaning it cannot add to the federal debt. That means even if the government pays $200 billion of the $1 trillion package, it must find a way to raise revenue or cut costs elsewhere to offset the price tag.
In anticipation of a major infrastructure initiative, the National Governors Association last month forwarded a list of 428 “shovel-ready” projects to the new administration. The list, culled from the states, includes an array of transportation, water, energy and emergency-response projects. And the sheer size of it underscores the intense interest in the initiative from governors of both political parties.
Based on guidance from the Trump transition team, states were asked by the NGA in December to submit three to five projects apiece. Most far exceeded that number.
California alone offered 51 “priority” projects that Brian P. Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, said represent more than $100 billion in targeted investments throughout the state.
Officials in Virginia submitted eight projects to the NGA, including the replacement of Long Bridge, which is the only railway crossing between Virginia and the District. The bridge transports 46 passenger trains and 23 freight trains daily, according to Virginia’s submission.
The state is also seeking help to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, a project officials say would reduce congestion and better facilitate evacuations from Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Officials in Maryland and the District have not released a full list, but District officials said priorities include Metro upgrades and the rehabilitation of the Arlington Memorial Bridge over the Potomac River.
The NGA said that the list it submitted in February included projects from 49 states and U.S. territories.
Some Democrats saw Trump’s infrastructure-plan pledge as a possible opening for a bipartisan deal, since many liberals want more spending on roads and bridges in their states and districts.
“But as the weeks go by, it seems to be receding further and further into the background,” said Jim Manley, a lobbyist who served as a senior aide for then-Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Still, supporters of Trump’s effort say the White House should not try to rush a plan into place.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address these issues, and we want to see it done right and not fast,” said Edward L. Mortimer, executive director for transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who was among those who testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.