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The strange case of Donald Trump and the missing infrastructure

Gillian Tett
The strange case of Donald Trump and the missing infrastructure

When Donald Trump arrived in the White House earlier this year, he loved to toss the "i" word around: infrastructure. Little wonder. Mr Trump won last year's US presidential election by pledging to create millions of jobs and faster growth. An obvious way to do this would be to unleash a big infrastructure plan. After all, America's infrastructure has deteriorated so badly in recent years that it now ranks 12th in the world, according to the White House.

But nine months into the presidency, that "i" word has quietly disappeared from view. Yes, the president still makes vague promises about "a trillion-dollar plan" to improve infrastructure. Indeed, Gary Cohn, the White House economic adviser, and Elaine Chao, transport secretary, presented earlier this year proposals to use $200bn of federal money for infrastructure, and reform the permit process to slash average approval time for projects from seven to two years.

But no tangible plans have been presented to Congress — even though Chuck Schumer, the wily Democrat senate leader who is passionate about infrastructure, seems ready to cut some bipartisan deals. Nor has a single project got under way, nor a job been created. The only whiff of action revolves around the privatisation of air traffic control.

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Why? The official explanation is timing. This autumn Mr Cohn has doubled down on his plans to get a tax reform package through Congress. For the moment this is the key focus, or so the argument goes.

But if you want another explanation, take a look at the story of Dan Slane, a former Trump adviser who has been knee-deep in those infrastructure weeds. Outside Ohio, not many people have heard of Mr Slane, who runs companies in Columbus with a big real estate focus. But he joined Mr Trump's election campaign team last year, and after the election was given the task of creating a workable trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.

He spent several months consulting with trade unions, business leaders and state politicians. Then, in tandem with Boston Consulting Group and CG/LA Infrastructure, he identified 51 "shovel ready" projects. Some involved desperately needed repairs to existing infrastructure, such as the locks and dams on the Ohio River in Kentucky and Illinois; others were new projects like high-speed rail in Texas and Florida, new subway lines in New York and 30-mile-long water tunnels in California.

The consultants estimated these 51 projects could deliver 260,000 jobs, and a big economic boost. And while the price tag was a hefty $230bn, Mr Slane proposed starting with 27 projects that were already planned out, in detail, and which could produce immediate revenues and thus attract private financing. "Every infrastructure fund in the world contacted me to get involved — Saudis and Chinese and others," Mr Slane tells me. "Finding the money is the least of the problem."

In economic terms, the plan looks stunningly sensible (except for diehard fiscal hawks). In political terms, it seems attractive too. But when Mr Slane presented his ideas, something peculiar occurred: they vanished. Neither Mr Slane nor the White House has explained why. But some friends of Mr Slane blame a turf war: Mr Cohn wanted to impose his own infrastructure agenda, based on public-private partnerships, of which Mr Slane is wary.

The other culprits were sheer incompetence and chaos. It seems that the president never convened any meetings to talk about Mr Slane's ideas. Nor did anybody create a strategy plan. Indeed, it is unclear whether Mr Trump even read those documents. "I have built hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure — I know what you need to do," Mr Slane laments. "What drives me crazy is that we have a president who is a real estate developer. He knows how this works!"

This may not be the end of the tale, however. Mr Slane is now trying to persuade Congress to embrace his 51 projects. Separately, Mr Cohn, Ms Chao and Steven Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, still claim that they will press ahead with their own plan when — or if — tax reform is laid to rest. Some of Mr Trump's longstanding friends in the real estate world are offering advice on infrastructure, too. Almost everybody, it seems, agrees with Mr Slane that this is an eminently sensible idea.

But for the moment his plan remains unpublished. It is a wasted opportunity. It is also a powerful symbol of so much that has gone wrong in the White House. Mr Slane, for his part, still supports the president, blaming his staff for crushing his dream. But the question is whether Trump voters will be so forgiving when the next election occurs? Think of that the next time you hear Mr Trump toss around the "i" word.

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