President Trump announced a solution to the nation's infrastructure problem last week. However, the solution and the problem don't really match up. On Tuesday he signed a new executive order purportedly aimed at speeding up infrastructure improvements, but the end result could be to expose taxpayers, businesses and entire communities to new risks from climate change and other environmental hazards.
The new infrastructure executive orderThe new executive order focuses on speeding up the federal review process, but based on an analysis by Bloomberg it really boils down to a classic case of misdirection.
The order strips down the existing federal review process. However, federal agencies are generally not the driving force behind excessive delays on infrastructure projects:
Some experts have said that while existing procedures can be streamlined and made more efficient, most delays are caused by the need for state and local approvals and other factors including available funding...
For some insight into that problem, it's helpful to take a quick look at the Obama administration's efforts to speed up the pace of rooftop solar installations. Studies indicate that "soft costs," including local zoning and permitting regulations, accounted for a major portion of the final cost of rooftop solar. Accordingly, the Obama administration focused on helping local governments speed up their permitting processes.
In contrast, the Trump executive order focuses on federal agencies, not local processes. In fact, Trump's new executive order provides local governments with the option of adopting more stringent standards.
Interestingly, the Trump administration has been leaning on an Obama initiative called FAST-41 to develop more efficient permitting processes at the federal level.
Bloomberg notes that critics of the new order have urged the Trump administration to focus on implementing FAST-41 as the most efficient pathway for comprehensive reform of federal infrastructure review, rather than eliminating regulations willy-nilly.
Taxpayers on the hook for flooding, climate change risks
That brings us to another major problem with the new executive order.
Bloomberg -- and many others -- have pointed out that the new order rolls back a previous order signed by President Obama, which aimed to protect U.S. taxpayers from investing federal dollars in projects at risk for flooding and other climate change impacts:
Among other things, the president’s order will rescind a previous decree signed by former President Barack Obama that required federal agencies to account for flood risk and climate change when paying for roads, bridges or other structures.
The Obama order also protected taxpayers from investing in federally backed mortgages for homes at risk for future flooding.
Where's the beef?
Circling back around to the misdirection issue, Trump's new order also fails to address another major culprit behind infrastructure delays: money.
In that regard, it's instructive to look at the Gateway rail transit project for New York and New Jersey.
Gateway was formulated in recent years, after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rejected plans for a previous iteration called ARC (Access to the Region's Core). Among other benefits ARC would have improved the area's strained commuter railways by doubling the number of trains in and out of New York.
Christie cited lack of funding as the reason for pulling the plug on the project.
Christie halted ARC in 2010, putting an end to an elaborate planning process that began in 1995 -- more than 20 years ago.
The Gateway project was formulated as a next-best solution and funding was pledged under the Obama administration.
However, the new Trump budget puts Gateway on shaky ground, too.
Trump rolled out a splashy $200 billion, 10-year infrastructure funding plan last May, but analysts at the non-partisan University of Pennsylvania Wharton Budget Model shook out the numbers. According their analysis, the new Trump budget would slash $255 billion in existing infrastructure spending.
The new executive order does not provide a clear pathway for replacing the missing $5 billion, let alone increasing federal spending on infrastructure. The idea, apparently, is to shift more of the funding responsibility onto state and local governments, which is precisely the problem that Governor Christie used to justify killing the ARC project.
If you're interested in more details about the relative impact of funding and regulations on infrastructure project, The Center for American Progress provides a detailed assessment. Here's one snippet:
...the principal restraint facing state and local governments contemplating megaprojects is money, not environmental review. In fact, state and local governments often begin environmental review with the hope that this will help build the political momentum necessary to secure the funding for construction.
Like Bloomberg, CAP cites the Gateway project as an example, while underscoring the role of political will in securing funding for infrastructure projects:
...The preliminary estimated total cost is more than $23 billion. The political challenges of securing this much money are daunting. Environmental review is not the obstacle preventing completion.
What happened to the climate advisors?
Due to transparency issues, it's difficult to sort out who, or which groups, shaped the policy underlying Trump's new executive order.
Trump signed the order last Tuesday, apparently without formal input from his Advisory Council on Infrastructure.
Trumped established the council in July, but he failed to recruit or name any members, at least not formally. He then disbanded the council last Thursday, after his Manufacturing and "Strategic and Policy" councils let word slip that they were disbanding in protest of the Charlottesville debacle.
Had it been active, the Council on Infrastructure had a broad mission to guide infrastructure policy. According to the broadcast trade publication B&C News, the members were to have represented a broad range of sectors including but not limited to "real estate, finance, construction, communications and technology, transportation and logistics, labor, environmental policy, regional and local economic development."
The members would have been charged with this mission:
"...study the scope and effectiveness of, and make findings and recommendations to the President regarding, Federal Government funding, support, and delivery of infrastructure projects in several sectors, including surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resources, renewable energy generation, electricity transmission, broadband, pipelines, and other such sectors as determined by the Council."
That's all well and good, but apparently Trump has been receiving guidance on an informal basis, with a focus on the real estate sector.
The New York Times reports:
Days before his inauguration, the president announced that he was naming the real estate developers Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth to lead the infrastructure group. He has since added two people from the world of private equity: Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, and William E. Ford, the chief executive of General Atlantic.
According to the Times, Trump has "solicited policy advice" from the group, prior to and after signing July's executive order.
At least one environmental group, Food & Water Watch, has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the ad hoc advisory group, claiming that Trump is "outsourcing policy making to private individuals who are unfettered by conflict-of-interest rules and other public accountability standards."
And, what happened to the Climate Advisory Council?
The transparency issue comes into focus when 'you consider what the executive order could have looked like, had Trump sought guidance from infrastructure and climate change experts including those in his own Department of Energy.
Despite Trump's rhetoric on climate change, the Energy Department still provides a robust online information hub for climate change impacts in the U.S.
That includes an interactive map detailing climate change impacts on the nation's energy resources and energy infrastructure.
According to the Energy Department, we need to do something -- and fast!
We live in a rapidly changing world. The effects of climate change -- such as heat waves, rising sea levels and more severe storms -- are already being felt across the United States. Our energy infrastructure is especially vulnerable to climate-related impacts, which can pose a serious threat to America’s prosperity, national security, energy security and quality of life.
For that matter, over the weekend The Washington Post reported that the President has disbanded an advisory group on climate change, basically by allowing its charter to expire on its Sunday deadline:
The Trump administration has decided to disband the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment, a group aimed at helping policymakers and private-sector officials incorporate the government’s climate analysis into long-term planning.
We'll likely never know who, or which groups, took the upper hand on shaping Trump's new infrastructure policy, but it sure doesn't look like anybody who really knows anything was involved.
Image (screenshot): via US Department of Energy.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.