When big-city mayors met in Washington last week, one of their primary messages regarding infrastructure was that the federal government should send new money directly to cities, rather than through states. The Trump administration seems open to the idea.
“The folks in this room turn dirt faster than anybody in America,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a meeting on infrastructure at the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ meeting last week. “We think that cities are the place where a lot of this [federal infrastructure] money ought to land.”
D.J. Gribbin, a special assistant to President Trump on infrastructure, told the packed ballroom of mayors that cities – or any other unit of government – would have an opportunity to apply for money directly from the federal government, under a plan being drafted by the White House. But anyone looking for federal help would have to raise their own money first.
Gribbin came to the mayors’ conference the day after many of the city leaders had decided not to attend a White House meeting on infrastructure. Prominent mayors including Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Landrieu, the group’s president, skipped the meeting with Trump after his administration threatened to subpoena 23 states, cities and counties over their immigration policies.
But during the meeting with Gribbin at a downtown hotel the next day, the conversation stuck to infrastructure.
“This is our week. This is our month. This should be our year. We finally got Washington’s attention. I think Washington is focused, at long last, on infrastructure,” said Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, who heads the infrastructure committee for the mayors’ group.
Gribbin said the White House would release a detailed set of principles a week or two after the State of the Union speech on Tuesday, although the administration has missed several self-imposed deadlines so far.
The administration’s two main goals are to increase spending on government-owned infrastructure by $1 billion and to reduce the time it takes to get federal approval for major projects to two years. The plan won’t include any new revenue, but Gribbin said Trump would not stand in the way of a gas tax hike.
The Trump administration wants to use $200 billion in federal money to attract another $800 billion in additional infrastructure spending from states, localities and private entities.
That money would not be taken directly from the Highway Trust Fund – the main funding source for surface transportation – or from state revolving funds that help finance water infrastructure projects. “For the most part, we keep existing programs in place,” Gribbin said. “But when we add new dollars on top of those existing dollars, we want to use those dollars differently.”
Of course, current revenues from the federal gas tax are not even enough to cover the cost of existing programs. Congress has had to raid funds from other programs to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent, but the most recent influx of money will only cover anticipated spending through 2020.
To pay for Trump’s infrastructure push, Gribbin said the administration would try to redirect money that helps support Amtrak and build new transit projects. That money would help cover the costs of the federal match for the infrastructure plan. The White House proposed making similar cuts in the “skinny budget” it proposed last year, but Congress opted not to follow those recommendations.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said he was “pretty skeptical” of the administration’s infrastructure package, because he feared that cities would lose more money in federal grants that would be cut than they would gain from the new infrastructure spending.
“This isn’t supposed to be a net loss for cities,” Gribbin told him. “That’s not the goal.”
Other mayors wondered why cities were being asked to raise more money for the infrastructure package than the federal government would.
“Cities are being strong and bold, while we’re seeing an administration and congressional leadership that is timid and weak,” said Garcetti at an earlier event.
The White House plan relies on states and localities either raising money themselves or bringing in private money to help fund infrastructure improvements.
“That’s not Washington leadership,” Garcetti said. “Giving us a nickel or a dime for every 95 cents or 90 cents we put in doesn’t allow you to count our dollars as your infrastructure package.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the new funding schemes could affect all cities, particularly ones that are already economically distressed. The Trump plan would require local governments to come up with 80 percent of the costs to get a 20 percent match from the federal government. That’s a big change from current federal highway funding, for example, which requires only a 20 percent local match.
“There’s going to be many jurisdictions across the country that are desperately in need of infrastructure repair and new infrastructure that have difficulty coming up with the 20 percent match, much less the 80 percent match,” Adler said.
Despite the reservations, the mayors did push for cities to be eligible to get federal funding directly, rather than having it channeled through the states. City officials have pushed for that change for years, with little success.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors says that under the Obama-era stimulus package of $800 billion, only 0.86 percent of it went directly to cities. Under the current highway bill, which was passed in 2015, 93 percent of highway spending is channeled through the states.
In May, the mayor's group issued a report calling on the Trump administration in its infrastructure proposal to “move federal dollars directly to the local level, avoiding inefficient and slow state bureaucracies.” The report cited dozens of city-led projects that were “on task, on time [and] on budget.”
Mayors pressed that message in Washington last week.
“It should go to mayors,” Garcetti said. “When you give it to governors, it’s counted as ‘spent’ in Washington, but it takes another four or five years [to actually get spent on the ground]. Trust me, we can spend it, like, tomorrow.”
Douglas Athas, the Republican mayor of Garland, Texas, offered an example of how he said state officials can obstruct infrastructure projects cities want to build. Local leaders in the Dallas area, he said, had done exactly the kind of thing Trump has called for, by lining up a proposal to use private money to widen the LBJ Freeway (Interstate 635-E) and add tolled, managed lanes. But state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, blocked the project because they objected to tolls.
“We’ve got 2,000 elected officials in north Texas represented by our [metropolitan planning organization] that have all made the decision on how to do this. We’ve got two or three politicians in the way,” he told Gribbin. “Is there a way we can have, in the infrastructure bill, enough leeway for local officials to make the decisions and send the money directly to them?”
“We actually don’t need money," he added. "We can do this. We just need permission to do this right.”
Gribbin told him that, under Trump’s plan, the cities could get the infrastructure money directly.
But a spokesman for the Texas Transportation Commission, the agency that has blocked the toll road so far, told Governing that the agency would still have to give the cities permission to widen the interstate.