City Limits: The displacement dangers of the Trump-Democrat infrastructure deal

City Limits, May 6, 2019: The displacement dangers of the Trump-Democrat infrastructure deal

In the week since President Trump and Congressional Democratic leaders announced a vague agreement to pursue a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, more than one note of doubt has been sounded. Some wondered if Trump’s commitment was likely to survive more than one news cycle. Many conservative Republicans fretted about how to pay the 13-digit price-tag. And some liberal Democrats worried that, by finding common cause with the president on infrastructure, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were handing Trump a valuable victory in the midst of fallout from the Mueller report and ahead of the 2020 campaign season.

What makes infrastructure spending a political wildcard is the breadth of its appeal. Progressives adore public investments. As long as there’s a good chance much of the work will come their way, trade unions like the potential construction jobs. Business types love moves that make it easier for their employees to get to work or their product to get to market.

But the diversity of support for infrastructure spending—the sense that virtually “everyone” supports it—doesn’t mean it benefits everyone to the same degree, if at all. Depending on how the plan is structured, people in America’s rural areas (who arguably need more of an economic boost than anyone else) could be left out. And then there are those whom infrastructure spending could actually hurt: namely, low-income urban residents who could be displaced by rising housing costs resulting from the investment.

A classic case is Portland’s Interstate Corridor Urban Renewal Area Plan in 2000, which, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, “catalyzed the demographic and geographic shift from historically African-American communities within Portland to the outskirts of the city.” Concerns about a similar effect have dogged plans in New York for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar line, and were part of what scuttled a transit plan in Nashville last year. While the magnitude of displacement effects is debated, and projects could be structured to reduce those dangers, it’s clearly a risk for any major spending on roads and rails.

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