The Trump administration is pushing federal officials to sell off, privatize or otherwise dispose of a broad array of government assets, from Reagan National Airport and the George Washington Memorial Parkway along the Potomac River to properties held by federal agencies across the country.
The proposals are part of a long-awaited infrastructure initiative that President Trump has referred to repeatedly since the night of his election in 2016, when he struck a bipartisan tone in promising to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” In last month’s State of the Union address, he called for remaking the nation “with American heart, American hands and American grit.”
The $200 billion infrastructure proposal, crafted over the past year but overshadowed by other priorities such as tax cuts and immigration, is focused on speeding up permitting by reducing environmental regulations. It also is geared toward trying to prompt state and local governments and private industry to spend more on projects without major new federal investments. It would achieve that with a mix of loan and grant programs, including those focused on rural areas and risky but potentially “transformative” projects.
Despite appeals for bipartisan support, the caustic political environment and the proposal’s basic approach — promising much-needed improvements while simultaneously proposing broad cuts in infrastructure spending elsewhere in the federal budget — have raised doubts about the package’s prospects.
While a senior administration official called the president’s 53-page proposal “the start of a negotiation,” it has been something of a rough start. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the plan “is like a Hollywood facade.”
“The Trump plan has the skin of an infrastructure plan, but it lacks the guts,” Schumer said, adding that “the lack of direct investment would leave out large parts of America.”
Trump on Tuesday urged Democrats to strike a deal — but offered no hint of possible changes on the GOP end toward compromise.
“Our infrastructure plan has been put forward and has received great reviews by everyone except, of course, the Democrats,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “After many years we have taken care of our Military, now we have to fix our roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and more. Bipartisan, make deal Dems?”
A Democratic staff analysis of the budget proposal Trump released Monday cites more than $168 billion in proposed infrastructure funding cuts over 10 years. And that’s only a partial tally, according to the Democratic summary from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
But Trump administration officials say real and long-standing funding challenges are why new approaches are necessary, from incentive grants to close gaps on the financing of local projects to tapping underused assets for sale to generate needed resources. The administration says its $200 billion in infrastructure spending over a decade will spur about $1.5 trillion in infrastructure activity overall.
“It’s a much more collaborative and creative way of” providing funds, said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, particularly in an environment where “unfortunately, there’s not enough money to be able to pay for all the infrastructure needs of our country.”
Chao said the goal is flexibility, not mandates, and the administration is not “forcing” toll roads on states, for example, a frequent criticism. At the same time, “we should also not discriminate” against private firms hoping to partner on public infrastructure, something she said is common.
Administration officials say that it is wrong to characterize the more than $100 billion in future shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, reflected in their budget proposal, as cuts. They say they are still trying to find a solution to that structural problem and have not rejected the idea of a gasoline tax increase.
The push to sell off federal assets offers a window into the philosophical core of the Trump administration and its approach to infrastructure.
How far it will go remains unclear. A separate, high-profile Trump effort to move the nation’s air traffic control system out of government hands was blocked in Congress last year, although the administration proposed it again Monday.
In addition to Washington’s National and Dulles International airports — which are leased from the federal government — the administration is seeking to unload a variety of assets across the country, according to a copy of the proposal.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, both run by the National Park Service, are listed as “examples of assets for potential divestiture.”
The Washington Aqueduct, which supplies drinking water in the District and in Northern Virginia, is on the list.
Power transmission assets from the Tennessee Valley Authority; the Southwestern Power Administration, which sells power in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; the Western Area Power Administration; and the Bonneville Power Administration covering the Pacific Northwest, were also cited for potential targets for a sale.
“The Federal Government owns and operates certain infrastructure that would be more appropriately owned by State, local, or private entities,” the Trump plan says. It calls for giving federal agencies “authority to divest of Federal assets where the agencies can demonstrate an increase in value from the sale would optimize the taxpayer value.”
A host of unnamed federal agencies would also, under the proposal, gain new powers to keep the proceeds when they sell property under their control. That would give them incentives to find properties to offload, since they would be able to reinvest in other assets that better fit their needs, according to the proposal.
Under current law, the proceeds from such “disposals,” in many cases, must be transferred to a land and water conservation fund, but that requirement would be eliminated, according to the proposal.
Some state officials said they were uncertain how their residents would benefit from such a proposal. Federal assets come with crucial federal dollars that could not easily be replaced, they said.
“All I can see now is a federal obligation that they’re trying to push off. Where would we get the money from without a revenue source?” asked Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne.
Layne, an accountant and former transportation secretary, said numerous unanswered questions make it impossible to gauge the administration’s proposal at this point.
“I don’t even know what’s being sold — I don’t mean just physical, I mean obligations,” Layne said. “What level of funding? Is the federal government just going to wash their hands of it?”
Some other officials in Virginia mocked the proposal.
State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who said he has lived next to the George Washington Parkway his entire life, called the idea “outrageous.”
The president is “turning Northern Virginia into his plaything. Seriously, what’s next? We’re going to build waterfront condos along the Potomac?” Surovell asked. “Surprised they didn’t propose to sell the Wilson Bridge while they were at it.”
But Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said the administration of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is eager to take control of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the federal government.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Rahn said. Taking control of the road would lift “a huge liability” from federal shoulders, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in needed maintenance, he said. The state would then add toll and carpool lanes.
“I also believe we can make it safer for the traveling public. Last year, 14 people died in crashes on the parkway, and I think that has to do with its antiquated design,” Rahn said.
As for how much Maryland might pay, Rahn said “a one-dollar exchange makes a lot of sense,” although conversations are ongoing with the Trump administration.
“They should probably pay us for taking it over,” Rahn said.
Brian Murphy contributed to this report.