Part 3: Infrastructure Modernization – The Blind Spots in Trump’s Infrastructure Plan

Donald Trump has finally released the details of an infrastructure modernization plan he says would build “gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”  To the Administration’s credit, there are some interesting proposals in the 53 pages of ideas the White House wants Congress to consider.

Unfortunately, though, the plan is near-sited. In fact, it is as blind as Trump himself to one of the most important factors in infrastructure investment today: the need to take the impacts of global climate change into account.

Before getting into that, the ideas with merit include federal funding of “bold, innovative, and transformative infrastructure projects” in rural America, and permission for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be involved in flood control and prevention, hurricane damage reduction, and environmental restoration in water projects – all of which are now the sole province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Those ideas come close to an admission by the White House that violent weather needs our attention even if it is a Chinese plot. But the plan stops short of acknowledging that the infrastructure we build today must be able to withstand the conditions we expect tomorrow, including much more severe weather stresses, fresh water shortages, expanding disaster zones, wildfires, storm surges and rising sea levels. In fact, the words “climate change”, “global warming”, “resilience” and “sustainable” do not appear in the plan at all.

As federal scientists reported last month, there was a record number of big weather disasters last year. There were 16 events in which physical damages to property and infrastructure, along with business and crop losses, exceeded $1 billion. In several cases, the damages were far higher than that, including $18 billion from the California wildfires, $50 billion from Hurricane Irma, $90 billion from Hurricane Maria, and $125 billion from Hurricane Harvey.  In addition to killing nearly 300 people, last year’s storms did more than $306 billion in total damages, not counting health- and death-related costs.

The same scientists that foresaw these types of events tell us with confidence that our violent weather is merely a taste of what’s to come because we and other nations are still dumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

A more forward-looking approach to infrastructure modernization is to think of it this way: Nearly all of it shares two things in common. First, it must be built to last many decades to come using today’s best available technologies, materials and designs. Second, it must be designed, constructed and sited by looking to the future rather than the past. That’s because the past is no longer prelude where the weather is concerned. Other things are changing rapidly, too, from threats such as cyber-attacks to the availability of low-carbon construction materials, to the need to reinvent our electric system for a clean energy economy. The speed of change today makes long-term investments difficult.

Let’s take a deeper dive into the example of the electric system. The one we use today has been called the greatest engineering achievement of the last century. Now it is becoming the most obsolete engineering achievement of our time. The emergence of cost-effective solar and wind power is forcing utility regulators, investors, grid operators, dispatchers and the system itself to behave differently. Electrons must not only move in one direction, but two. Energy is being produced not only by big central power plants with power lines extending in all directions. It is also being generated by solar “power plants” on rooftops.

Unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy can be clean, reliable, stable, less vulnerable, free, inexhaustible, water-saving and indigenous. We should do all we can to capture it. Some of our best resources, however, are located in rural regions that do not have the power lines necessary to put clean energy into the system. One top priority should be to extend the grid to those stranded resources. One result would be new jobs and income in the rural areas providing this power.

On a related front, the Climate Institute is exploring the possibility of creating a nationwide “super grid” for transmitting high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) electricity. That type of transmission is being developed in China and other parts of the world.  Among other advantages, HVDC power can be moved over long distances with fewer electric losses. The Institute envisions a grid whose lines are installed underground along existing rights-of-way to create a single nationwide power market rather than the regional markets we have today. The Climate Institute estimates that new market structure and infrastructure could save as much as 78% of the nation’s power-sector carbon emissions.

Another example: We can anticipate that electric vehicles will become a significant part of the nation’s fleet. General Motors’ new business plan envisions an all-electric, zero-emissions future for the auto industry. France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, China, India and Norway all say they will ban the sale of gas and diesel cars in the coming decades.

So, to encourage this trend and to serve it, EV recharging stations should be integrated into our transportation system, both in cities and along highways. During the Obama Administration, in fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation planned to establish 48 EV charging corridors covering 25,000 miles in 35 states. That work should continue. (Don’t tell Trump that Obama thought of it, however. If he found out, he would pull the plug.)

To identify and take full advantage of opportunities like these, Congress must reject Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. Trump wants to slash spending in those programs by an astounding 72% next year, including important research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Congress should also defend science from the Administration’s efforts to banish it from government. We need our Earth Sciences programs to better understand global warming. We need agencies like NASA and NOAA to monitor and interpret climate impacts from space. We need the government’s Global Change Research Program to translate the latest science into its periodic reports that show how global warming will manifest in each region of the United States.

One of the central principles of Trump’s infrastructure plan is to move a great deal of responsibility from Washington, D.C. to state and local governments. But if state and local officials are to make good decisions, if engineers are to do good designs and investors are to make good investments, they all need good information at local scale.  That requires ongoing research to fully understand the local effects of this global phenomenon.

Finally, another obvious omission in Trump’s plan is where the government will get the $200 billion federal portion of the $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment he proposes. It would be nice if the $200 billion was not added to our exploding national debt. Tax reform alone will add at least $1 trillion to the deficit. Congress has just lifted its spending limits, and Trump has just sent it a 2019 budget that would add another $7 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

Congress could easily find the $200 billion by eliminating the tens of billions of dollars the government gives away every year in tax subsidies for oil, coal and gas companies. Those subsidies have been around a long time and their elimination is long overdue. They are enemy No. 1 in government market interventions that distort prices, create unfair market competition, and” pick winners”.

Eliminating those tax breaks to futurize our infrastructure is an option that deficit hawks, fiscal conservatives and free-market advocates normally should love.  But the deficit hawks in Washington have suddenly turned into deficit chickens. They are not only failing to oppose the deficit’s expansion; they are voting for it.

A cynic might think their strategy is to make government so broke that nothing will be left for Democrats to spend, should they take back the House or Senate this fall. But that is a topic for another time.


Editors: Infrastructure Investment Gap Chart available from statista at:

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February 20th, 2018|Commentary|