A centerpiece of the Trump administration’s infrastructure proposal is the promise to swiftly inject billions into rural infrastructure projects.
But the way Trump officials propose to do that is already raising questions on Capitol Hill, with some saying that the administration is seeking to use untested and potentially politicized means to dole out the federal funds.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao pushed for support of the package, which also aims to speed projects by curtailing environmental reviews, in testimony before a Senate committee Thursday.
Despite bipartisan calls for improving U.S. transportation networks, water systems and other infrastructure, President Trump’s 10-year, $200 billion proposal faces deep political uncertainty amid a poisoned political environment. It comes after vast tax cuts last year sharply limited the fiscal breathing room for what had been touted as one of Trump’s signature initiatives.
The rural infrastructure proposal calls for $40 billion to be sent to governors in block grants using a new federal formula that, according to administration budget documents, will be “calculated based on rural lane miles and rural population adjusted to reflect policy objectives.”
There are numerous federal definitions for what constitutes “rural.” Exactly how Trump’s metrics, including one tied to the length of rural roads, would be used remains unclear, raising concerns among some that they could unfairly disadvantage even states with large rural areas.
“It’s really an unusual kind of way to calculate a rural formula,” said one congressional official who has examined the proposal. “It’s odd, because you’re using rural-road lane miles, and yet the funding isn’t specific to roads in any way.”
Indeed, projects eligible for Trump’s proposed infusion of cash stretch far beyond transportation to include water and wastewater, electricity production and transmission, and broadband.
White House officials have signaled that the rural funds are a top priority. An additional $10 billion would go to states via competitive rural grants. Heavily rural states were among candidate Trump’s most reliable sources of support.
His infrastructure proposal also includes a separate, $100 billion incentives program, under which states can apply for money to help close local funding gaps.
But the rural plan takes precedence.
While the rest of the money would ramp up over the coming years, “the rural funds are advanced and moved faster. . . . There’s a front-loading of the rural funds,” a White House official said recently in previewing the administration’s budget.
That fiscal blueprint also called for deep cuts in existing transportation and other infrastructure spending, including for transit projects nationwide.
“It’s no surprise their political base gets the money fast, and everybody else has to beg the administration to support their project,” a Democratic congressional aide said.
Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters said Trump is keen to hash out the details with both parties.
“There are no red states or blue states in the president’s infrastructure vision,” Walters said, citing multiple bipartisan meetings he’s held with congressional, state and local officials.
“What is most important to President Trump is that America’s rural areas receive the help they so desperately need to rebuild their communities and reconnect to the national and international economy,” she added. “We are fully open to discussing with the Hill what the best way is to achieve that goal.”
Chao sought momentum for the administration’s plan at Thursday’s hearing, held before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, R.D. James, who was confirmed in January and oversees the Army Corps of Engineers, also testified.
The Corps of Engineers plays a key role in permits for roads and many other projects. Chao and other officials have pushed to speed up the corps’ approval processes. The administration delayed, by two years, an Obama-era rule on regulating wetlands and tributaries.
Chao was pressed for specifics on the rural program. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) noted the proposal’s reference to rural lane miles and rural population.
“But how does the administration plan to define ‘rural’ for the purposes of this funding? I know, across the federal government, there are many, many definitions for rural. What are you specifically looking at?” Fischer asked.
“On the specific question, I have to confess, somebody told me but I cannot remember now for the life of me,” Chao said. “Let me get you an answer back on that.” Chao said she would provide more information on “the whole issue as to how we define it.”
Asked about the additional information, a Transportation Department spokesman did not provide specifics, saying the intention of the program is “to provide needed resources to areas that are clearly rural in terms of proximity to urban areas and population density. The rural formula will ensure that funding is provided to the rural areas that need it most.”