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Trump’s Budget Blueprint Goes Backwards on Urgent Infrastructure Needs

This post is part of WRI’s blog series, The Trump Administration. The series analyzes policies and actions by the administration and their implications for climate change, energy, economics and more.

With Infrastructure Week kicking off in the United States, business leaders, elected officials and others are focused on why U.S. infrastructure rates only a “D+” in the latest report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The comprehensive study, released every four years, found that America’s roads, bridges, drinking water pipes and public transit systems are in poor shape and at serious risk of further deterioration.

The need to revitalize our infrastructure creates an opportunity to make new investments in a way that produces the most economic, social and environmental benefits for every dollar invested. The question now is whether political leaders will come together to make the most of this opportunity.

While President Trump is expected to release his full budget proposal next week, the current plan is poised to make the nation’s infrastructure even less sustainable. Specifically, the Fiscal Year 2018 “skinny” budget, released in March, makes significant cuts to energy and transportation programs designed to help homeowners and businesses save money on energy bills, make the power grid more resilient and provide cleaner, more reliable transport.

Here’s what’s on the chopping block:

Transit

America’s transit infrastructure received the lowest grade (D-) from the ASCE of any sector, with $90 billion of investment needed just to boost transit systems to an adequate condition.  For example, although 81 percent of Americans live in urban areas, only slightly more than half can get to a grocery store via public transportation.

Public transit, biking and walking produce far fewer emissions and air pollution than driving, and they’ve been shown to bring economic benefits to the communities that invest in them— like increased tax revenue or retail sales, and improved safety and public health. Yet the Trump administration’s skinny budget proposes to do away with a handful of programs that would help move America toward sustainable mobility.

The budget cuts Department of Transportation (DOT) programs like Major Capital Investments’ New Starts, which provides funds for new or expanded transit systems. Defunding New Starts could strand 16 major projects around the country, from the Phoenix Light Rail extension, which would provide more dependable mobility options between downtown and south Phoenix, to a number of commuter rail projects that connect rural residents to jobs in cities.

The proposed budget also includes cuts to the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants program, which provides support for innovative, hard-to-fund projects. This past year’s TIGER grant awards included Mobile, Alabama’s One Mobile project, which will reduce the city’s road lane widths to increase safety, improve sidewalks and add a dedicated bicycle lane. They also included multi-jurisdictional projects like Moving the Carolinas Forward, which will rehabilitate rail lines to make freight movement more efficient in rural areas between North and South Carolina, reducing fuel use and pollution.

Aviation

According to the ASCE, airport and air traffic control systems infrastructure have not kept up with the pace of aircraft technology and efficiency development, earning aviation infrastructure a D. Some of the busiest airports lack the capacity they need for handling passengers, cargo, security and other functions.

Trump’s proposed budget would shift the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air traffic control functions to an independent NGO, calling into question the fate of some sustainability programs like the Next Generation Air Traffic Control System (NextGen), which would reduce fuel consumption by 1.46 billion gallons and flight delays by 41 percent.

The budget also proposes eliminating the 40-year-old Essential Air Service, which provides flights between 135 rural towns and major cities. While reducing air travel would help lower GHG emissions, cutting this service without providing alternative transportation options would leave rural communities disconnected. One potential solution could be supplementing flights with direct bus routes. For example, in 2011, M.J. Bradley identified 38 towns within 150 air miles of a medium or large airport hub that could be serviced with coach bus services. This would not only lead to almost $90 million in savings for passengers and taxpayers, but allow rural communities to remain connected while reducing emissions.

Clean and Resilient Energy Systems

Even though the American energy sector has been getting cleaner and more efficient, much of it was built at the turn of the 20th century. ASCE scored U.S. energy systems a D+, urgently recommending increased investment to address aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, increased demand and potential impacts from severe weather events and climate change.

Federal research and development has helped lower costs and made U.S. energy cleaner and more resilient—for example, the LED lightbulb saved consumers $1.4 billion in energy costs, highly-efficient refrigerators save the average family $150 per year, and federal R&D has supported renewables and hydraulically fractured natural gas.

The budget proposal would jettison advanced clean energy R&D, such as by eliminating the Department of Energy (DOE)’s popular ARPA-E program.  ARPA-E has supported a number of promising projects, such as lower-cost manufacturing and design for batteries that could make the power grid become more resilient, as well as the deployment of data analytics to help utilities manage the grid and provide customers with more control over their energy usage and bills.

Beyond R&D, the budget eliminates the Energy Star program, a voluntary energy efficiency standard which costs roughly $57 million annually, yet has lowered American electricity bills by almost a half-trillion dollars since 1992. That’s a savings of thousands of dollars per American household! This cut could also jeopardize the more than 550,000 jobs supported by Energy Star appliances and high-efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

Looking Ahead: Clean and Efficient Infrastructure for All Americans

While the Trump administration continues to say that infrastructure investment is a key priority, the skinny budget would seriously undercut programs designed to bolster America’s sustainable transport options and clean energy systems. As the administration moves forward with releasing a proposed full budget, it needs to look at the country’s current pain points, as well as the programs that are working to make things better. A minimum starting point is to not go backwards. A better strategy is to ramp up investment in projects making America’s infrastructure stronger, more sustainable and economically secure.

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