Trump Administration To Try Again To Fulfill Infrastructure Pledge (#GotBitcoin?)
The Trump administration is preparing to make another attempt at honoring one of the biggest unfulfilled promises of the president’s election campaign: a $1 trillion upgrade of the nation’s road, rail and energy infrastructure. Trump Administration To Try Again To Fulfill Infrastructure Pledge (#GotBitcoin?)
Any deal likely will have to include a lot more federal cash to pass muster with Democratic-led House.
That program failed to materialize during President Trump’s first year in office, as the administration pursued a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which failed, and a major tax cut, which he signed into law in December 2017.
In 2018, a package that would have compelled cities and states to come up with at least 80% of the funding for infrastructure improvements was dead on arrival in Congress. Even Mr. Trump’s fellow Republicans voted instead to increase spending in existing grant programs that send federal money to local governments for infrastructure as part of a budget deal, which the president signed.
This time around, people familiar with the White House’s plans say, the administration’s effort is likely to include a lot more federal cash—which makes it more likely to pass muster with the new Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives.
“There has to be real money, real investment,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.), a veteran lawmaker who is in line to take over as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the next Congress. “It needs to be done soon.”
Room For Agreement?
Mr. DeFazio, who briefed reporters on his plans the day after Democrats won the House majority in November, said he had delivered that message to Shahira Knight, the White House’s legislative-affairs chief. Ms. Knight agreed, he said, that a successful deal would have to include major new federal funding. A White House official confirmed that Mr. Trump is “open to more federal funding.”
“This isn’t going to get done without support from the president,” Mr. DeFazio said.
Republicans have also signaled a willingness to strike a deal, including Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), who chairs a key appropriations subcommittee that helps set funding levels for existing federal programs for roads, bridges and railroads.
The declining quality of infrastructure is “creating a serious threat to our economy and safety,” Ms. Collins said in a statement. “I have long believed that an infrastructure package could be an avenue for bipartisanship and deliver positive, lasting results.”
Mr. Trump’s approach to infrastructure has long been a moving target. During his first two years in office, Mr. Trump seized on some of the work of a team led by D.J. Gribbin, then his special assistant for infrastructure policy.
Mr. Trump delighted in showing off a more than six-foot-long chart depicting the many potential steps it can take to get federal approval for a project like a new highway. But in meetings with lawmakers in the fall of 2017, as Mr. Gribbin’s team tried to build up support for the Trump infrastructure package, the president sharply criticized public-private partnerships, which would have been a vital tool in making the administration’s program work.
Mr. Gribbin, who left the White House this spring, says the administration had envisioned a “hybrid” that could have included raising federal funds, such as by increasing the gas tax, in combination with new money raised at the local level, where three-quarters of total infrastructure funding occurs. “You will never be able to raise enough money federally to close the infrastructure deficit we have currently,” he says.
But some of the constraints on Mr. Trump in terms of proposing more public spending for an infrastructure plan have eased with the change in control of the House. While Mr. Gribbin’s infrastructure plan would have capped federal spending at $200 billion over 10 years, Mr. Trump has shown a willingness to spend more readily in his budget deals, notwithstanding growth of the deficit.
A person familiar with the president’s thinking said he was prepared to spend “buckets of money” on an infrastructure plan as he closes out his first term and prepares for a re-election run—a sign that there could be room for agreement with Democrats.
“Look, this guy’s a builder—he gets it,” Mr. DeFazio says. “It takes investment and real money. Some of it can be borrowed, as long as we create a way to repay it.”
Hope For Deal
But a deal could depend on whether the White House and Democrats can set aside conflict in other areas. Mr. Trump has in the past tried to tie funding for one major Democratic priority—a new bridge and rail tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York City—to funding for his proposed wall on the Southern border, which is anathema to many Democrats.
Mr. DeFazio has said he plans to use his chairmanship to investigate other administrative actions, including what Democrats and some Republicans have said is the slow pace of release of funds already approved by Congress for projects such as subways and light-rail systems.
“We got a lot of things we can emphasize and disagree over, we don’t need to politicize infrastructure,” Mr. DeFazio said.
There is growing hope for a breakthrough even among those who have opposed Mr. Trump in other venues.
“We’ve got a president, regardless of what you think of him, who has a tendency to deal in extremes,” says Steven Cohen, chairman of Gateway Development Corp., which is leading the effort to build the new rail tunnel into New York.
“It will be ‘No, no, no’ until it’s ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ ” says Mr. Cohen, a close ally of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. “And I think it’s going to be ‘Yes, yes, yes’ very soon.”
The Interstate Is Crumbling. Try Fixing the Section Used by 200,000 Vehicles a Day
Crews reconstructing I-4 through Orlando must contend with traffic, sinkholes, residences. Price to redo 21 miles: $2.3 billion.
The state dubbed it the I-4 Ultimate for its grand scope. For some here, it’s more like the ultimate headache.
A reconstruction of 21 miles of congested interstate highway through the heart of Orlando will build or rebuild 140 bridges, redesign 15 interchanges, move exits and add new toll lanes, in a $2.3 billion project to smooth traffic through one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
The contractors must coordinate with 27 utilities to find and move gas pipes, sewer lines, water mains, storm drains, electrical wires and fiber-optic cables. The region rests on porous limestone, prone to sinkholes, that can defeat plans to drive deep pilings. Construction crews have to work in a tight highway corridor flanked by office towers, malls and arenas, with little room to maneuver or put their equipment.
All the while, thousands of cars and trucks keep roaring through.
The Orlando highway makeover has resulted in hundreds of damage claims from drivers and property owners, including some who were flooded when a retention pond burst. Four workers have been killed on the project, an atypical toll according to one analyst. The lead contractor, from Sweden, has said it doesn’t plan to tackle a project of this kind as an investor in the U.S. again.
The I-4 Ultimate exemplifies, in extreme form, the challenges facing urban areas across the country as the U.S. interstate highway system hits the half-century mark.
Dense cities have grown up around the aging freeways, hemming them in so that expensive engineering feats are needed to do work on them. Yet work is often unavoidable. I-4, for instance, was built in the 1960s to handle 70,000 vehicles a day. Now it is jammed with up to 200,000.
Patrick Kling drives to his downtown job each day through the highway reconstruction zone. He sometimes finds the route bewildering.
Under the contract, the builder must keep the same number of lanes operating during the day as there were before construction started. The result is a repeatedly altered traffic flow, with on-ramps and off-ramps periodically shut down and detours posted.
Construction crews regularly shift lanes leftward onto medians or rightward onto shoulders to accommodate workers and equipment, which must be walled off from the traffic by concrete barriers. Workers have reduced each lane’s width by a foot to gain space for construction, crowding the cars that are navigating the shifting lanes.
To help drivers cope, the project created an interactive map showing the latest road closures and a YouTube channel that lets people visualize how to maneuver before they face the changes at highway speed.
Even so, Mr. Kling, a 33-year-old art director, has missed exits and dodged swerving drivers who evidently were confused. The recent closure of an on-ramp near his job subjects him to 15 extra minutes of gridlock waiting to get on the freeway.
“It’s really a mess,” he said.
Like Florida, many other states face billion-dollar outlays to unsnarl just a few miles of aging interstate. Colorado is working on a $1.2 billion upgrade of less than 10 miles of I-25 through Denver. Nevada is undertaking a nearly $1 billion refurbishment of four miles of I-15 in Las Vegas. Wisconsin is wrapping up a six-year, $1.7 billion overhaul of an interchange in suburban Milwaukee.
Price tags like that once earned politicians the chance to cut the ribbon on a big new bridge or whole freeway. Today, such budgets may cover only some improvements to get an old highway to work as well as it once did.
State and local governments spent $175 billion on highways and roads in 2016, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research group. Highway construction traditionally has relied on fuel taxes for funding, but that pot has shrunk because of lower gasoline sales, forcing states to tap other sources such as bond issues.
“This is happening in place after place, and a lot are experiencing sticker shock,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.
Few dispute that I-4 in Orlando needed reconstruction. The metropolitan area had about 200,000 people when the highway was completed in 1965. Now the population is 2.57 million, and 75 million tourists come each year to see Walt Disney World and other attractions. The resulting congestion, on a highway with outdated designs, slows commerce and prolongs commutes.
The rebuilding work stretches from suburban office parks in the north through downtown to theme parks in the south. One goal is to clear bottlenecks such as a spot downtown where traffic is funneled into a narrow pathway. That will split into several stacked ramps. The rebuilding also will eliminate left-lane exits and smooth a sharp bend named the “Fairbanks curve” that has led to frequent accidents.
The overhaul will create four new toll lanes, with prices that vary based on congestion. It includes flourishes such as accent lighting on overpasses, fountains in storm-water ponds and a $1.5 million fund for artwork displays. Workers will elevate the interstate 10 feet through downtown, opening the area below for an urban park with basketball courts and several performance spaces. Here is a look at some of the tasks the workers are tackling.
A traditional approach to an undertaking of this scale would have issued separate contracts to design and build the project and broken it into several chunks, taking perhaps 20 years to complete, said Jan van de Meene, chief executive of I-4 Mobility Partners. That group, made up of Skanska and John Laing Investments Ltd., entered into a public-private partnership with the Florida Department of Transportation to handle the entire project.
The companies are responsible for financing, building and eventually operating the project for 40 years, while the state makes set payments over that period. Doing the work are Skanska, Granite Construction Inc. and Lane Construction Corp. Steve Olson, a state transportation department spokesman, said the arrangement permits doing the entire project in seven years.
The project is the biggest public-private partnership in Florida history and one of the largest roadway projects in the country.
Steve Gunter, 57, owns a restaurant in the College Park neighborhood near the I-4 reconstruction. “Have there been days that were horrifying? Yes,” Mr. Gunter said. “But it was horrifying on a fairly regular basis before.” He said his business hasn’t been hurt by the construction because the contractor has kept traffic moving through.
An early setback for the I-4 Ultimate came in May 2017 in a spot downtown where a bridge was being built as part of an interchange. Because of a nearby electrical substation sensitive to vibration, the builder had to drill holes and pour concrete columns for foundations rather than bang in steel pilings, according to filings by the contractor to the state.
While drilling a test hole, workers reached an unstable section underground and the shaft failed. The same thing happened with another test hole three months later.
The contractor and the state raced to revise plans, while squabbling over who was to blame, according to monthly progress reports filed by the builder. Eventually, they settled on the solution of shortening some drilled holes and switching others to steel pilings.
The snag cost time and money. The contractor filed a claim in June 2018 requesting a 245-day delay in the completion date plus an additional $100 million. The state is reviewing the claim.
In September 2017, a month after the second drilling failure, Hurricane Irma blew through, forcing the contractor to stop for nine days. That was when a retention pond being rebuilt ruptured and flooded a neighborhood in the town of Longwood.
At Linda Collier’s property, part of the backyard was washed away and the water loosened an oak tree, which crashed onto her greenhouse.
“I’ve lived here 23 years and never seen anything like that,” said Ms. Collier, 67. She said the contractor reimbursed her.
About a year ago, when heavy rain coupled with drainage problems caused lane closures, the state docked the contractor high numbers of contract “noncompliance points.”
The tally approached thresholds that would authorize the state to cancel the contract and would mean a default under the lenders’ agreement, according to Jennifer Chang, a senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. Moody’s changed its outlook on the project’s federal and bank loans to negative in June 2018. Since then, the contractor’s points tally for the most recent 12 months has improved.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is auditing the Federal Highway Administration’s oversight of the project, following concerns raised by three members of Congress from the area, as well as local media reports saying there were cracks in a bridge.
Skanska, the lead contractor, said it took a $100 million writedown in a recent quarter because of cost overruns in two public-private partnerships in the U.S. It wouldn’t identify them, but its only two such projects under construction in the U.S. are I-4 and some work at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Skanska said recently it would no longer bid on public-private partnerships as an equity partner in the U.S.
One of the workers killed since the I-4 Ultimate project started in 2015 was crushed by a steel cage. Another was struck by a piece of equipment, and one was hit by a dump truck, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigations.
OSHA has received more than 160 reports of worker injuries on the site. Drivers on I-4 have filed hundreds of claims of vehicle damage, such as from construction debris.
Joseph Cioffi and Megan Penfield were driving on the highway one day last year when they encountered mud and debris, according to their attorney, Chad Lucas. He said Mr. Cioffi braked, and the vehicle behind him hydroplaned and struck his car, pushing it against another vehicle. Mr. Cioffi, 27, and Ms. Penfield, 24, said they suffered injuries and have sued the building consortium. It declined to comment.
A January lawsuit on behalf of nearby homeowners seeks damages for misfortunes such as separated floorboards and tile cracks from the vibrations of nearby pile-driving.
Jason Helvenston, 47, pointed to fissures in walls at his house about 50 feet from I-4 in the College Park neighborhood. He and his wife, Jennifer Helvenston, said banging and rattling from the construction work grew so bad two years ago they bought a van so they could leave for stretches of camping.
“I feel like I’m being driven from my home,” said Ms. Helvenston, 44. They are clients of attorney Louiza Tarassova, who has filed a suit that seeks class-action status for homeowners.
Tension flared at a March gathering the couple attended at a community center, where a spokesman for the I-4 project, David Parks, delivered an update on the work. When he opened the floor for questions, hands shot up.
“Are you aware the houses are shaking?” one woman asked.
“Can we get the construction company here?” asked another.
“I know that you all are very frustrated,” Mr. Parks said. But “I think you’re seeing a lot of progress being made quickly.” Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try, Trump Administration To Try