Road crew

Alabama Department of Transportation employees work along I-20 in Oxford Tuesday.

President Donald Trump wants to see $1.5 trillion in new road and bridge construction across the country, but local officials say it’s not clear Calhoun County would get anything out of Trump’s plan.

“There are only a few projects in the state that would qualify, and none of them are near us,” said Jacksonville City Councilman Jerry Parris, a member of the Anniston-based Metropolitan Planning Organization, a regional road-planning agency.

Parris and his colleagues on Monday got their first look at Trump’s long-awaited plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. On the campaign trail, Trump promised major reinvestment in roads, bridges and airports — a call that seemed to have broad, bipartisan support. For more than a year, state and local officials waited for a federal spending push and wondered what sort of local-spending strings would be attached.

Now they know more. On Monday the White House released a plan to “stimulate at least $1.5 trillion” in new construction — at a cost of only $200 million to the federal government. Under Trump’s plan:

  • The federal government would kick in 20 percent of the cost of new road or bridge projects; local governments or other entities would pay the other 80 percent
  • Give states more power to collect tolls on interstate highways
  • Allow states to commercialize interstate rest areas
  • Sell some federal property, including Tennessee Valley Authority transmission lines
  • Offer $50 billion in grants to states, without any state match, to spend on infrastructure in rural areas.

Federal officials might have trouble finding states willing to take up that 80/20 offer. That’s because the federal government has historically picked up much more of the tab for state-and-federal road projects. In fact, it’s much more typical for the federal government to pay 80 percent, with local governments putting up the last 20 percent.

“If that were the split, it would be tough,” Calhoun County administrator Mark Tyner said. County government would still not “turn a blind eye” to federal assistance, he said, though the decision to spend might become more difficult.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a C-minus in its yearly report card on infrastructure last year. The group found that 9 percent of the state’s bridges were structurally deficient — and it criticized the state for not having a clear picture of how many of its dams were at high risk of failure.

One key to the state’s infrastructure problems lies in its gas tax, an 18-cent-per-gallon fee that hasn’t gone up in the last 25 years. With inflation and more efficient cars, the purchasing power of the revenue from that tax goes down every year.

Under Trump’s plan, state and local governments could team up with private investors to find the money to match the federal government’s offers. Parris, who attended a League of Municipalities conference on transportation spending Tuesday, said it was clear that most communities didn’t have private partners willing to spend the amount needed to build a road.

“There are three areas in the state where they have enough traffic for a toll road, and they’re all near Mobile,” Parris said.

Business groups such as the Business Council of Alabama have been pushing for more infrastructure spending in recent years. On Tuesday, the group had cautious praise for the Trump plan.

“I think the 80/20 match, the way it used to be, would have been great,” said Drew Harrell, director of the Alliance for Alabama’s Infrastructure, a group BCA set up to advocate for road spending. “But to miss out on any amount at all would be a mistake.”  

The plan also won the support of the Alabama Farmers Federation, which praised Trump’s rural spending plan.

“What we saw in the president’s release is something that’s optimistic about rural areas,” said Jeff Helms, spokesman for ALFA.

Trump’s plan would offer lump-sum grants to states to spend in “rural areas with populations of less than 50,000.”

It’s unclear what the term “areas” means under the terms of the proposal, though 37 of Alabama’s 67 counties have populations below 50,000, according to the Census Bureau. A few additional counties fit the Census Bureau’s definition of a “micropolitan area,” essentially a rural area with no population center of more than 50,000 residents.

Calhoun County, with more than 100,000 residents, doesn’t fit either definition.

 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.