As the White House Pitches “Infrastructure Week,” Architects Sound Off

On Monday, the White House kicked off what it’s billing as “infrastructure week” with an address from President Donald Trump on privatizing air traffic control. As he turns back to his domestic agenda after his first trip abroad and amid more news about the investigations into his campaign’s potential ties to Russia, the president is expected to unveil details of how his administration will deliver on a campaign promise that drew bipartisan praise: overhauling the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

The White House’s budget proposal lines up $200 billion for infrastructure over the next 10 years. The rest of the $1 trillion that candidate Trump pledged is intended to come from private investment, but it’s unclear how the administration will achieve that.

“We are also for using the private sector to leverage money,” Marcia Hale, president of the infrastructure advocacy group Building America’s Future, told The Atlantic, “but the need in the country is so great that the $200 billion number is not going to do it.”

Even if the administration’s injection of public money does galvanize the private sector to spend, however, the recent White House budget proposal could undercut long-term investment in infrastructure.

 

It’s highly unlikely that Congress will approve the administration’s budget proposal as written. But even if it did, some experts are disturbed by calls for deep cuts to Amtrak, the Highway Trust Fund, and the Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant program—all of which could cancel out any temporary rally in the nation’s infrastructure spending elsewhere.

When those cuts are accounted for, the White House plan then looks like a boost in infrastructure spending in the short-term but a net cut after 2021, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This, the organization’s Jacob Leibenluft calls, “a brazen bait and switch.”

But some architects see an opportunity in the White House’s focus on infrastructure: a chance to attract funding for climate resilient design even though, so far, that has not been a stated priority for the administration. (Last week, the president made what might be his signature move on climate change: backing the U.S. out of the first global accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.) “If everyone around the table is negotiating in good faith, it’s very possible to see something good come out of [the infrastructure plan],” says Tom Jacobs, AIA, principal at Chicago-based Krueck + Sexton Architects. “People on the liberal side should be open to that.”

Jacobs says he supports the administration’s calls to streamline the bureaucratic gauntlets that sometimes bog down new projects—at times for as long as a decade or more. But, Jacobs says, he would also like to see a national infrastructure plan that asks developers to show how their work will have a substantial public benefit before they get any public money.

“There’s a short-term interest of getting things done, but then that infrastructure is going to be there for maybe a hundred years,” he says. “There’s a point where you don’t want to move faster than you should.”

And while he’s skeptical of privatization—Jacobs, who lives in Chicago, points to that city’s roundly criticized decision in 2008 to sell off its parking meters—he says a program relying on public-private partnerships could work if there is enough oversight.

Mark Ginsberg, FAIA, principal at Curtis + Ginsberg Architects in New York, wants the administration to expand its definition of infrastructure to include housing. His firm has a contract with the New York City Housing Authority to help them prepare for increasingly common superstorms such as Hurricane Sandy.

“We spent all this money building public housing. It’s getting old and it needs repair,” Ginsberg says. “That seems, to me, to be infrastructure.”

Some of that funding could come in the form of tax credits, Ginsberg says, unless they end up getting made less significant by tax cuts somewhere else. Most resilient design work like the kind he gets is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but both of those agencies are slated for deep budget cuts.

With the U.S. on its way out of the Paris Agreement, mayors and governors across the country have reaffirmed their commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Many local officials see that work as a winning issue, politically speaking, and often as a sound investment. Ginsberg says that means private infrastructure spending could support carbon-cutting projects even while the federal government takes an ax to its own environmental initiatives.

“Public transit, density, energy efficiency, it’s all critical,” he says. “It’s important not only for the health of the city, but for its carbon footprint, too.”

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