As it was for the people behind virtually every other progressive cause, the election of Donald Trump was a sad day for those of us who want to see the U.S. move toward a more efficient, healthy, and equitable transportation system.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that, with Republicans in control of both the Oval Office and Congress, our country is going to become only more car dependent. The party’s 2016 platform calls for eliminating federal funding for Amtrak, mass transit, bike-share programs, trails, and sidewalks—basically any kind of ground transportation that doesn’t involve cars or trucks.
Some leading Democrats have implied that Trump’s grand infrastructure plan could be a silver lining to the disastrous election. And some transportation advocates hope that, as a lifelong New Yorker, he might appreciate the importance of subways and city buses.
But within days of winning the election, Trump was already threatening Chicago’s roughly $1 billion in overall annual federal funding by promising to cut funds to all “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. To make matters worse, the president-elect picked road-industry lobbyist Martin Whitmer to lead his “transportation and infrastructure” transition team. And former Reason Foundation analyst Shirley Ybarra, a toll-road champion who has called for defunding transit, is in charge of finding the next U.S. transportation secretary and may be in the running herself.
Under the Obama administration, our city won many federal grants and loans for CTA track and station improvements, as well as bike and pedestrian projects like the Divvy system, the Bloomingdale Trail, and the Chicago Riverwalk extension. But regime change will force advocates to shift from progress to defense, says SRAM Cycling Fund director Randy Neufeld.
“We will move from growing the bike, pedestrian, and transit shares of [transportation funding] to fighting to hang on to eligibility for these modes,” Neufeld says. “Treading water is the best we can do. We may drown. Cities will be punished at every opportunity.”
This may be why the CTA is hustling to line up about $1.1 billion in federal funding for the $2.1 billion Red and Purple Modernization Project before Obama leaves office. For what it’s worth, though, CTA officials claim that the rush isn’t about fears that Trump will be antitransit or anti-Chicago, but rather that any presidential administration change could delay the RPM grant by as much as a year. (See this week’s politics column by Ben Joravsky for more on the city’s efforts to secure funding for Red Line upgrades.)
Despite these threats, some transportation boosters are eyeing at least one of of Trump’s campaign promises hopefully. Trump has proposed to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next ten years, and referred to the plan in his victory speech.
“We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said. “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
The need for infrastructure investments is “undeniable,” says Metropolitan Planning Council president MarySue Barrett. “The U.S. has underinvested in infrastructure for decades, and new sources of public funding need to be identified.”
Some prominent Democrats in Congress, such as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and New York senator Chuck Schumer, say they’re willing to work with Trump on infrastructure. Illinois Democratic representatives Mike Quigley and Dan Lipinski have said that the new president may even have better luck passing a major infrastructure bill than Obama did, because he’ll have a Republican-controlled Congress.
But putting together the funding for such a plan could be challenging. Former Regional Transportation Authority chief Steve Schlickman notes that congressional deficit hawks are unlikely to approve a significant amount of new federal grant money for infrastructure.
“I doubt [Trump] can convince Congress to raise taxes to fund . . . anywhere near [$1 trillion], if at all,” he says.
The Trump campaign released a policy paper last month that proposed paying for much of the plan via public-private partnerships (P3s), and using tax credits and other incentives to attract private investors. But this model would work only for infrastructure projects that could potentially generate profits for investors, Schlickman notes, such as toll roads. Nontolled roads or public transit lines don’t fit this model because they’re generally not moneymakers.
And while P3 toll-road projects tend to be profitable for the construction firms and financial services companies involved, they’re usually bad deals for taxpayers, Neufeld argues. Governments typically give concessionaires public financing and/or a guarantee that they’ll recoup their money, which means taxpayers are on the hook in the event of a shortfall. Traffic and revenue projections for these toll roads are often overly optimistic, he adds, dooming projects to financial failure.
For example, four years ago private firms opened opened a $1.35 billion tollway between San Antonio and Austin, Texas, backed by a $430 million federal loan. The road recently went bankrupt after seeing only 30 percent of predicted traffic volumes. (Many have argued that the Chicago region dodged a bullet last year when a federal ruling put the brakes on the Illiana Tollway project, a proposed $1.3 billion, 47-mile road built with P3 funding, which would have cut through prime farmland a few miles south of the metro area, and would have cost Illinois residents at least $500 million.)
There would be some other significant drawbacks if Trump’s infrastructure plan focuses on building tollways. Ironically, constructing new highways—instead of fixing existing roads, rail lines, and water systems badly in need of attention—would actually make it harder to maintain the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure. And more highway expansion would only exacerbate our nation’s problems with car dependence, sprawl, and air pollution.
Then there’s this to consider: Even if we assume that a sensible infrastructure plan could be crafted, there’s an emerging debate about whether it’s ethical to cooperate with Trump at all under present circumstances. The president-elect has called for mass deportations of immigrants, a ban on Muslims entering the country, wide-scale racial profiling by police, “punishing” women who have abortions, and other deeply disturbing policies. If Democrats negotiate with Trump on infrastructure and other nuts-and-bolts issues, would that represent pragmatism or a deal with the devil?
Streetsblog New York’s Ben Fried recently argued that it would be the latter. “There is no moral basis for collaboration on Trump’s infrastructure agenda—because enabling any aspect of the Trump policy platform will grease the skids for enacting the entire Trump worldview,” Fried wrote. “No piece of infrastructure is worth that risk.” He contended that fair-minded politicians should shun the president elect “until Trump conclusively renounces, with complete and utter finality, the racist, anti-democratic platform that he campaigned on.”
Locally, Romina Castillo from the bike equity group Slow Roll Chicago says she’s open to the idea of what would effectively be a legislative blockade to counter Trump’s more odious policies. “I think that lawmakers from Illinois, or any other state, should develop a clear plan to define if, why, and how they will cooperate with Trump’s administration,” she said. “I would also support resistance if that’s the means to a larger strategic goal of shutting down his exclusionary, hostile, and racist policies.”
On the opposite side, Jacky Grimshaw, vice president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, argues that it would be unwise for politicians and advocates to oppose Trump’s infrastructure plan, if it’s fiscally sound and benefits the majority of Americans.
“We don’t agree with Trump being a misogynist or a xenophobe, and if he says he’s going to deport millions of people we should stand up and protest and fight it,” Grimshaw says. “But to the extent that he says he wants to fix our crumbling infrastructure, I applaud him.”
I respect Grimshaw’s point of view, but now that it looks like Trump’s cabinet and advisers will be a horror show of climate-change deniers, union busters, Islamophobes, and white supremacists, I’m starting to favor Fried’s philosophy. At this point I’m less concerned about funding CTA track reconstruction than doing whatever it takes to keep our government from going completely off the rails. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.