Infrastructure, Immigration, and Trump’s War on Cities

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Trump speaks to mayors in the East Room of the White House on January 24, 2018.

The Master of Distraction has done it again. America’s trillion-dollar infrastructure crisis will never get the concentrated attention from the White House that it desperately requires, because the president of the United States enjoys poisoning the American body politic with divisive scapegoating. This week’s target: big-city mayors.

When he was running for president, Trump inveighed against the country’s Third-World airports, rail, and other emblems of national decay. In his first year in the White House, however, he has dodged and weaved away from any decisive action on the issue. Infrastructure has been lost in the hostage negotiations that pass for legislative deliberations over immigration, taxes, and health care. State and local leaders have endured unprecedented procrastination from the administration as they try to read between the lines of memos and vague speeches.

Trump avoids constructive engagement even when opportunity walks straight into the White House in the form of mayors in Washington for a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting. The local leaders, who traditionally hear from the president, were eager to participate in a “working session,” with infrastructure at the top of the agenda. The fact that the Justice Department sent out letters threatening sanctuary cities and their mayors with subpoenas on the same day as the meeting wasn’t exactly throwing out the welcome mat.

When he did address the mayors, Trump reviewed the greatest hits of his first year, punctuated by grade-school-worthy patter about sanctuary cities being “best friends of gangs and cartels like MS-13.” The president castigated Toni Harp, the black mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, as a “sanctuary city person.” She took a pass on the White House meeting, as did Bill de Blasio of New York, Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago, and many others. Instead of offering details about his year-in-the-making infrastructure proposal, Trump offered more vague teasers. (“We’ll be talking about it a little bit in the State of the Union.”)

 

 

The little that local leaders know about the president’s infrastructure intentions comes courtesy of an undated outline obtained by Axios. The plan, as reported, would chiefly foment more discord along the urban-rural divide. The competition between America’s cities and rural lands has been at the core of the American identity ever since Thomas Jefferson went up against Alexander Hamilton in the struggle for economic and political power between the agrarian slaveholding South and the nascent financial and industrial sectors in the North. But Trump has a knack for stoking these historic tensions, and the 21st-century infrastructure debate is the latest round in America’s rural-urban wars.

The leaked memo does not hold any great promise for cities. And yet the so-called “rural infrastructure program” mentioned in the memo (which would receive 25 percent of a total infrastructure appropriation) is deceptive: States would be “incentivized to partner with local and private investment for completion and operation of projects.” But most private investors who explore public-sector partnerships want a significant return on their investment. Most rural projects would not generate a high level of profits.

The biggest problem for cities comes from a radical shift in funding. Conservatives have long supported forcing localities to shoulder more of the fiscal burden for mass transit and kindred projects. In recent decades, the federal government has paid for 80 percent of these developments. Under the reported proposal, the federal government would reverse that ratio, providing only 20 percent of the funding, while municipalities somehow come up with 80 percent. That could grind urban infrastructure development to a halt: Most smaller cities have trouble coming up with the 20 percent match, much less an 80 percent requirement.

The doubts and misgivings about the (presumably) forthcoming infrastructure proposal have only been compounded by the recent tax overhaul, which has taken so much federal revenue off the table. What is clear is that the Trump administration wants to recast American federalism: Localities would have to shoulder more of the fiscal burden, with the private sector rendering a substantial assist.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, the reversal of the 80-20 division could simply dry up most major urban infrastructure projects, as part of Trump’s war on urban America—which voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Trump’s sanctuary city tantrum may also signal that his administration is contemplating some type of immigration enforcement–infrastructure dollars quid pro quo. To be sure, federal courts have already ruled that the administration cannot impose new requirements for federal grants that have not been approved by Congress. (The Supreme Court has also underlined the same principles.) But that hasn’t allayed the fears that some mayors harbor.  

“He might use that as leverage—we’ve certainly seen some foreshadowing of that,” says Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, who spoke to The American Prospect at a Center for American Progress forum on Trump’s tax and infrastructure plans.

“The government isn’t allowed to coerce behavior in certain programs by denying programs and benefits in other areas to cities,” Adler continued. “Fortunately, cities are protected against that and we would defend that in court if we needed to.”

But Trump has never let settled legal questions stand in the way of scoring political points. Despite the president’s complaints about the Third World state of the nation’s transportation networks and other vital components of its infrastructure, it’s his policies and his rhetoric that threaten to turn America into a shithole country. The nation’s mayors must anticipate that their cities, and the immigrants who live there, will continue to be the subject not of the president’s concern, but of his attacks.

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