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'Seems like it’s going to be about his corporate cronies': Environmental groups fret over Trump's infrastructure plan

Maxwell Tani
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus Executive Committee at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

(Trump attends a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus Executive Committee at the White House in WashingtonThomson Reuters)
In 2004, then-real estate mogul Donald Trump told Vanity Fair that the figure in he most admired was iconic New York builder Robert Moses, who built many of the parks, highways, and public housing in the city and surrounding counties during the mid-20th century.

Now as president, Trump plans to embark on his own ambitious building project, a $1 trillion plan to improve America's existing infrastructure, while kickstarting select ambitious projects like Elon Musk's high speed rail project.

But some skeptics worry that like Moses, Trump's proposal may have serious unintended consequences for the environment and communities in cities and states the projects aim to serve.

"If we've learned anything from Trump's constant assaults on our air, water and climate it's that Americans can't count on him to prioritize infrastructure or transportation solutions that benefit the health of our communities and families," Sierra Club associate director of federal advocacy Andrew Lindhart told Business Insider when asked about the president's plans.

In recent weeks, environmental activists have expressed concern during meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the specifics of the Trump's infrastructure plan, which Republicans hope to unveil later this year after they attempt to pass a tax reform package

Earlier this month, Trump's team hosted a meeting at the White House reviewing the goals of his $1 trillion infrastructure package. As the Wall Street Journal noted, Trump emphasized that the bill should favor renovating existing infrastructure over new construction, and should prioritize "shovel-ready" projects that could begin construction within 90 days of the bill's passage.

Experts from both parties argue that an infrastructure package is badly needed in the near future — Hillary Clinton campaigned on a $275 billion infrastructure package, while former President Barack Obama unsuccessfully attempted to rally Republican votes to support his $300 billion infrastructure package.

Following Trump's election in November, Democratic lawmakers like Senator Chuck Schumer previously said they hoped to work with the president on infrastructure — a rare point of compromise for both parties. Democratic leaders proposed their own $1 trillion infrastructure package, which would repair energy grids and transportation infrastructure while focusing on green solutions, renewable energy, and clean energy investments.

But while Trump's plan comes with an enormous price-tag, some on the left fear the infrastructure projects may be rushed into action without considering their environmental and economic impact on local communities.

Environmental groups have urged lawmakers to vet any forthcoming bill to ensure the projects are using green materials and new technology, and warned of redundant building projects that may need altering as climate change causes rising sea levels.

Stephanie Gidigbi, a policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Business Insider that any project needed to consider the impact on its local community, understanding that poor infrastructure could damage, pollute, and segregate cities and towns.

"You can really tell the difference between communities based off the roads based off the highways that divide neighborhoods, and that’s why you 'Live on the other side of the tracks,'" Gidigbi said. "We want to make sure that even as they’re building they’re thinking about the people who live there today. And you want to make sure that they’re the ones who are benefiting from it. Trump’s proposal seems like it’s going to be about his corporate cronies being able to tax and toll us."

She also argued that officials should thoroughly examine the shovel-ready projects to ensure that they aren't implementing outdated plans that have been debated for years. For example, she pointed out that a five-year old proposed project in Washington, DC, may need revision, considering rapidly the city's demographics, income, and needs have changed in just a few years.

"If you’re pulling those old blueprints off the shelf, saying that’s what we’re going to build for today, I would push us to try and do more and do better," Gidigbi said. "There’s just so much innovation that’s happening, there are so many better ways you can build."

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about transportation infrastructure during a visit to the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S. on July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

(Former President Obama speaks about improving transportation infrastructure during a visit to the Port of Wilmington.Thomson Reuters)

Activists also warned that projects in the bill may attempt to creatively skirt an Environmental Protection Agency with a newly-appointed leader reviled by many climate activists.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said he is primarily wary that cities or states may try to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the EPA to report on the environmental impact of proposed building projects. The Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity have already charged the Trump administration of violating NEPA by approving the Keystone XL pipeline without studying the pipeline's environmental impact.

"We are concerned especially as the infrastructure package is used to override environmental laws such as NEPA and the other bedrock environmental laws," Pica said, adding, "We are also concerned about the fossil fuel infrastructure that could be incorporated in the package."

Groups like the NRDC and others have been talking to members of Congress, urging Democrats to focus on investments in public transit and green transportation, water safety, and projects that don't increase air and water pollution.

Democrats have appeared wary of the bill, particularly noting their opposition to its finance mechanisms.

Trump's plan would repatriate billions in corporate profits overseas to pay for infrastructure, and offer massive public-private partnerships that would have their own revenue streams, like toll roads and bridges. Democrats have expressed discomfort with putting the toll burden on taxpayers, while Republican members of congress have balked at raising the deficit to pay for the program.

Further, Trump's budget proposal also offered clues that the new administration will make environmental concerns secondary.

The president proposed cutting the Department of Transportation's budget by $2.4 billion in 2018, slashing much of Amtrak's federal funding and ending the Obama administration's discretionary grant program which funded local transit programs.

Despite the current political environment, many cities have taken longterm resilient infrastructure improvements into their own hands.

Mayors like Greg Fischer of Louisville, which last year became one of 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative founded by the Rockefeller Foundation, have forced ahead with the help of other cities to confront strains on older infrastructure, including increased flooding on 40-year-old flood-protection systems and pervasive heat islands in low-income areas.

"The mayors of the country think that innovation happens from the bottom up as well," Fischer said. "So yes, we'll continue to innovate in that area because you have to to make your city a place of economic dynamism, and an attractive place for people to be. that doesn't happen if you're not constantly improving."

He added: "Regardless of whether or not one believes in climate change, cities are getting hotter."

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