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The problem with Trump's infrastructure plan: It's not much of a plan

Donald Trump's "$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan" doesn't cost $1.5 trillion. It's also not really a plan.
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Donald Trump, both before his election and after, at least said marginally compelling things about infrastructure. The Republican has long seemed to recognize that the nation's infrastructure is in desperate need of investment -- a point Barack Obama made countless times over eight years in the White House -- and this looked like an area where Trump could expect some bipartisan cooperation.

But then the delays occurred, to the point of actual comedy. In Trump World, it was always "Infrastructure Week" and the president's infrastructure plan was always poised to be unveiled "soon."

The good news is, the long-awaited, much-delayed plan now exists. The bad news is, it's not really a plan in any meaningful sense.

The White House unveiled its long-awaited infrastructure plan on Monday, proposing $200 billion in federal spending that it says will ultimately spur a $1.5 trillion investment over the next 10 years. [...]The plan includes $100 billion in "incentives" that would require local and state governments to pony up big bucks or partner with private companies to unlock federal dollars. While the government will judge several criteria when considering whether or not to give out infrastructure dollars, the biggest will be outside funding.

So, right off the bat, those headlines you may have seen about Trump's "$1.5 trillion plan" painted a misleading picture. What the White House has in mind is roughly $200 billion in federal investment, half of which is intended to entice state and local officials to somehow spend hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have on their infrastructure needs -- probably through regressive privatization schemes.

And what about the other half? According to the blueprint, Trump wants $50 billion for a rural block-grant program, $20 billion for federal loan programs, $10 billion for a capital financing program to build government buildings, and $20 billion for "transformative programs," though the definition of the phrase seems a little murky.

Are state and local governments prepared to fill in the gaps? Of course not. As Vox explained, "Right now, federally funded highways (that's interstates and other routes) are financed on the basis of an 80-20 federal-state split, and federally funded mass transit projects usually get a 50-50 split. Trump's proposal is to flip the 80-20 formula on its head and require that states and cities kick in at least $4 for every $1 in federal money they receive."

Wait, it gets worse.

Some of you might be thinking that even if Trump World's $1.5 trillion price tag is deceptive, $200 billion in infrastructure spending would nevertheless make an enormous difference. But that's where the other big problem emerges: the White House intends to pay for the $200 billion, not through new revenue, but by cutting spending elsewhere.

And where, pray tell, would those cuts come from? Administration officials have been a little vague about this, but the idea is apparently to cut from existing transit programs, including cuts to Amtrak and other existing transportation priorities.

So the White House is expecting state and local officials to make investments they won't make, and Team Trump is expecting Congress to move money around in a way lawmakers are likely to hate.

Last summer, during one of the White House's many "infrastructure weeks," Trump unveiled his only meaningful infrastructure idea of 2017: privatizing air-traffic control. It didn't much matter -- Congress rejected it quickly -- but the president introduced the proposal by way of a fake signing ceremony.

In hindsight, that was foreshadowing. Trump's "$1.5 trillion infrastructure plan" doesn't cost $1.5 trillion and it's not really a plan.