The False Promise of Trump’s Rural Infrastructure Investment

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

A supporter listens as President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  

We will rebuild rural America,” President Donald Trump told an adoring audience at the Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a few days ago. The president enjoys tantalizing the public with hints about his gonna-be-great-again infrastructure plans. But there is enough evidence to make clear that those “beautiful red” rural communities and the people that Trump professes to love are ones that are going to get shafted: Trump’s plans for rebuilding rural America may only further isolate those regions from the healthier sectors of the economy.

“We have to make sure American farmers and their families, wherever they may be, wherever they may go, have the infrastructure projects that they need to compete and grow,” Trump proclaimed. But the details of the infrastructure plans that have trickled out of Washington so far only heighten anxieties about rural America’s economy, much like the ones congressional Republicans have stoked around health care.

Deconstruct the four key principles outlined in the “infrastructure initiative” factsheet accompanying the president’s 2018 budget plan, and it’s hard to see what rural regions of the country gain. “Targeted federal investments” would go to projects that are high on the list of regional or national priorities; “encourag[ing] self-help” translates into communities that can raising their own dedicated revenues; “Aligning infrastructure … with efficient investment” equals seeking out private funding; and “leveraging the private sector” means that public actors will partner with companies and focus on “regionally significant projects.”

Those principles should concern state and local leaders of rural communities, which don’t appear to gain under any of those four criteria. Moreover, the president’s proposed 2018 federal budget fairly drips with disdain for rural Americans. Indeed, its cuts would even break up the quasi-functioning infrastructure networks that exist today.

This weekend, rail passengers across the country will #Rally4Trains to protest Trump’s proposed Amtrak budget cuts. If the six communities to the south and west of Cedar Rapids lose daily Amtrak service, the entire state of Iowa would have no long-distance passenger rail. In places like northern Montana that stand to lose stations, Amtrak is the only public transportation option. Of the 23 states where major Amtrak cuts have been proposed, 20 of them voted for Trump. How decimating Amtrak in those regions squares with growth and competition, not to mention regional mobility, in a 21st-century global economy, is mysterious, particularly against the backdrop of countries that send their citizens hurtling across vast distances in high-speed bullet trains.

Aviation isn’t spared, either. The entire Essential Air Service (EAS), the federal program that supports air services in rural regions, gets the axe in the 2018 budget. Two days before Trump delivered his remarks in Iowa, nine senators—five Democrats and four Republicans—sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, saying that the EAS cuts “would significantly reduce support for rural communities in our states. A reduction in support could lead to a reduction in services and ultimately in jobs for rural America.”  

Even the president’s plan to create a nonprofit entity to overhaul and modernize the nation’s air traffic control system lost the support of general aviation professionals who largely serve smaller towns and rural areas. They fear that turning air traffic control over to such a body would give the major airlines the upper hand in a system that they already dominate.

Some of Trump’s notable applause lines in Iowa came with the promise of rural broadband investment. “You're going to have it,” Trump told his audience. But how they are going to get it is still contentious. With everything from crop reports to weather forecasts relying on digital access, the internet is a necessity. Much like electricity in the early 20th century, broadband is the gateway to full participation in the economy, a true marker of haves and have nots. 

But internet service providers aim to provide broadband at a profit, not as a public service—which may mean exorbitant rates for rural subscribers who cannot afford Manhattan-level pricing. In response to these marketplace realities, some communities have established municipal broadband companies. Still others will take on significant debt to get these projects off the ground—after all, self-help is all part of the Trump’s plan.

Even water infrastructure is slated for cutbacks. The administration would defund the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Water and Wastewater loan and grant program, which assists many small communities with drinking and wastewater infrastructure requirements. Private water companies usually charge residents much higher rates than public entities.

Small towns that nonetheless hope such companies will come knocking to upgrade or restore their systems, however, may be out of luck. Corporations “generally avoid small and rural communities where household income is low or where water quality problems are significant,” the advocacy group Food & Water Watch observed in a 2016 report. “They typically target a small system only if it is near their existing infrastructure network and they can take advantage of economies of scale.”

That conclusion highlights a key failing of relying on the private sector to take up public-sector slack: Private companies will not flock to fund projects in remote rural regions. The ones that do will make certain that residents pay accordingly. The private sector will only invest where it can turn a profit, which typically means in cities, suburbs, and exurbs. How the administration plans to incentivize companies to service remote localities that offer no discernable way for those companies to make a serious buck remains an enigma.

Trump may be assured of a friendly reception in rural communities, but his policies show he has as much interest in people who live on farms as he does in people who live in urban neighborhoods. That he can talk about farmers, ranchers, students, and give a joking shoutout to the former Goldman Sachs president taking a pay cut in the “hundreds of millions” to work on the administration’s infrastructure issues is simply more proof of his imperviousness to the workaday worlds of most Americans—as well as the blinders that many of his audiences have about him. Trump’s infrastructure proposal is crafted to give corporate America what it wants—not what rural Americans need. 

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