Why It's Infrastructure Week, Again

May 15, 2018
Originally published on May 16, 2018 1:24 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's Infrastructure Week again. Since President Trump came into office, it sometimes feels as though every other week is Infrastructure Week. In some circles, this has become a running joke.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, there is an official industry gathering every year and, to be clear, that is what is happening right now.

SHAPIRO: Before now, there have been various White House-declared infrastructure weeks, events and other announcements. And despite the fact that this is one of Trump's big issues on the campaign trail, bigger news has consistently overshadowed these infrastructure-themed events. So let's recap.

KELLY: Let's recap. In early June 2017, the White House kicked off its own Infrastructure Week.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And it's so wonderful to speak on the shores of the very magnificent Ohio River. We're here today to talk about rebuilding our nation's infrastructures. Isn't it about time?

KELLY: But that week, it was another story that was inescapable.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Fired FBI Director James Comey just hours away from his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is being called Washington, D.C.'s Super Bowl.

KELLY: Needless to say, the nation's waterways are not what that week will be remembered for.

SHAPIRO: The White House went back to infrastructure in August.

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TRUMP: Hello, everybody.

SHAPIRO: President Trump spoke at Trump Tower in New York City.

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TRUMP: I just signed a new executive order to dramatically reform the nation's badly broken infrastructure permitting process.

SHAPIRO: But the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville had just happened days earlier.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Mr. Trump...

TRUMP: How about a couple of infrastructure questions?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Wasn't terrorism that event?

KELLY: And this past February, the Trump administration finally unveiled its infrastructure plan. Here's how White House press secretary Sarah Sanders described it at the time.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: As you all saw yesterday, the president unveiled a legislative outline for rebuilding infrastructure in America. To cure decades of neglect, we are committed to quickly building a safe, reliable and modern infrastructure to meet the needs of the American people and to fuel economic growth.

KELLY: That announcement was overshadowed by questions like this one from ABC's Cecilia Vega about the abrupt resignation of White House aide Rob Porter.

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CECILIA VEGA: Is the White House still maintaining that John Kelly really had no idea about these allegations of domestic abuse until this story broke?

SANDERS: I can only give you the best information that I have, and that's my understanding.

SHAPIRO: So now industry leaders are in Washington for their official Infrastructure Week, and NPR's David Schaper is in town covering it. David, good to see in person.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good to see you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The industry leaders you're talking to are very aware of this running joke, right?

SCHAPER: They are. They're not crazy about it in some ways. Some are saying - some of the organizers in particular say that at least it's bringing some attention to the issue and to some of the events that they have going on. In fact, one of the organizers I talked to said that the more that this Infrastructure Week joke goes around, the more people signed up to participate in some of the real Infrastructure Week events, the more groups that got engaged to participate elsewhere around the country, not just here in Washington, D.C. So they do feel like there's a little bit more momentum behind the issue to some degree, but some also worry that the joke kind of lessens the urgency to address real infrastructure need.

SHAPIRO: And, honestly, this is an urgency we've been hearing about for years, long before President Trump. What are some of the biggest needs that the industry leaders you're talking to point to?

SCHAPER: Well, the American Society of Civil Engineers rates overall our infrastructure a D-plus and says it will cost $2 trillion more than we have allocated to fix and get everything up to snuff, up to just a passing grade or an average grade level.

SHAPIRO: So we're not even talking about the best airports in the world. We're just talking about a bridge that won't collapse.

SCHAPER: Right - 55,000 structurally deficient bridges around the country. We have all kinds of crowded airports. Water systems are in bad shape. In fact, there are several boil water orders every day in this country because there's been some contamination in the system. You look at the locks and dams on the Mississippi. We could go on and on. There are all kinds of decrepit conditions, roads that are tearing up tires and trucking companies that go through tires and other equipment more quickly than they used to just because the roads are tearing them up. It's pretty abysmal out there.

SHAPIRO: We've heard President Trump talk about these problems a fair amount. Has the administration actually done much to address them?

SCHAPER: Well, they haven't done much. I mean, the president did promise an infrastructure bill within his first 100 days in office. It took over a year for him to introduce an infrastructure funding plan, and that's gone nowhere in Congress - just did not have enough federal funding, and it didn't identify a funding source for it at all. There was an omnibus spending bill that included about $20 billion for infrastructure, which was a lot better than many people expected. But to be clear, that was a move that Congress made, and it overrode some of the budget cuts that the president was proposing. When it comes to the White House, though, last week, we learned that there won't be a bill at all this year. Here's press secretary Sarah Sanders.

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SANDERS: We're going to continue to look at ways to improve the nation's infrastructure. But in terms of a specific piece of legislation, I'm not aware that that will happen by the end of the year.

SHAPIRO: So, David, if the prospects of this are essentially dead at least in the short term, what are you hearing from all these people who are in Washington this week?

SCHAPER: A lot of frustration. I mean, mayors are upset because they've gone to their taxpayers and raised local taxes to fund infrastructure projects. State leaders have done the same. We're now at 30 or more states that have raised their own gas taxes to better fund infrastructure needs to fix their roads and bridges. But they need federal help. And they've been waiting for a federal infrastructure plan. There's a lot of optimism when President Trump was elected and when he came into office promising all this infrastructure. But the frustration is growing because they are saying that even with all this talk, there's just not a lot of walk from the White House.

SHAPIRO: NPR's David Schaper here in town for yet another Infrastructure Week. Thanks, David.

SCHAPER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.