Trump's Infrastructure Plan Will Create More Flints

Trump's Infrastructure Plan Will Create More Flints
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President Donald Trump’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plan may sound lavish. But, in fact, it is a re-investment in the very forces that made Flint, Michigan’s water crisis possible in the first place. 

The Trump plan offers $137 billion in tax credits to private businesses in the hopes that they will spend more than $1 trillion on infrastructure improvement. President Trump has also called for tripling capitalization of a state loan program that offers low-interest funding for water infrastructure. And he has called for rolling back environmental safety regulations. Together these proposals would further deepen the divide between wealthy and poor communities — the former are attractive to private investment, the latter are not — and do little to fix the problems facing water infrastructure across the country.  

In Flint, improperly treated and poorly monitored water allowed high levels of lead to leach from pipes into people’s homes. The crisis coincided with the city's switch from treated water pumped from Detroit to water from the local Flint River as an exclusive drinking water source — a switch made necessary by the kind of infrastructure problems Trump’s plan would make worse.

In Michigan, officials facilitated the construction of a new $285 million pipeline that duplicated Flint’s existing water connection to Detroit.  The pipeline was sold on disputed assurances about water rate savings over several decades, though the main beneficiaries have been construction interests and wealthier communities seeking to separate themselves further from financially crippled Detroit. Authorities defending the project dismissed the risks it imposed on the politically and economically disempowered city, ultimately saddling Flint with both a public health catastrophe and the burden of paying for the project that led to it.  

Trump’s plan doubles down on the financial and political incentives that led to Flint’s disaster. Making tax incentives and loans the mechanism of distribution for infrastructure funding discourages investment in water infrastructure improvement projects that would help communities most vulnerable to water quality problems. These projects — such as flood mitigation and pipe replacements — are expensive to construct, maintain, and monitor, but do not generate much, if any, profit afterward.

Weakening the regulatory agencies best able to ensure that new projects make sense and are built to high safety and environmental standards will only make matters worse. As reviews of the Flint crisis reveal, regulatory oversight was already deeply inadequate. Clearly severe cuts in regulatory authority or funding would not have helped. 

Offering infrastructure funding that favors communities with the money to make investment profitable, or to secure favorable loans, means that poor communities will have little chance to benefit. Given the racial make-up of urban poverty, this plan will deepen environmental injustice problems that already disproportionately affect people of color.

Proponents of Trump’s plan will criticize the inefficiency of public infrastructure management and its high price tag. But it is precisely the expense of construction and loss of public accountability that have prevented many systems from moving toward greater private control. And for cities with the greatest needs, a lack of control over what gets built is the central problem.

Democrats have gestured at their own counter-plan, which would invest $1 trillion directly in projects, rather than trying to incentivize them by dangling tax-breaks in front of the private sector. The Democrats’ plan would be funded by closing unidentified tax loopholes. Whether this is plausible or not, Democrats ought to emphasize that Trump’s plan is also a form of deficit spending, albeit one with no guaranteed return on investment and that overlooks some of the most needed infrastructure improvements. 

Meanwhile, government environmental protection efforts have improved public health and safety. To be sure, these efforts are expensive and require a collective social commitment to improving the health and safety of people in communities outside our own. Regardless of whether we are ultimately willing to pay for such improvements, the need to do so will continue to grow.  

The president is right to want another infrastructural boom, akin to the one that helped spur post-war America. This idea stems from the near universal belief in the importance of improving our water, power, and transportation systems. But, as it stands, Trump’s plan is nothing more than a re-investment in the economic and political conditions that make infrastructure crises more likely, not less.

Michael Tiboris is the Global Water Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Public Fellow for Mellon and the American Council of Learned Societies. His research concerns justice and water resource distribution, including urban water quality crises, distributional fairness, water conflict, and transboundary resource governance. @MichaelTiboris

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