Labor unions representing construction workers have sent an infrastructure priority list to President Donald Trump at his request, as his White House searches for projects to greenlight that require little if any federal funding.
North America’s Building Trades Unions sent the White House the wish list of 26 projects, including more than $80 billion worth of energy transmission lines, water and wind projects, and pipelines across the country.
More than half of the projects on the list given to Trump aide Stephen Miller are privately financed. All but one are in the midst of permitting and could use the Trump administration’s help in the form of regulatory relief.
The lone project seeking taxpayer dollars is the $20 billion Gateway project, which would add passenger rail capacity between densely populated New Jersey and New York and replace 100-year-old rail tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The unions’ president, Sean McGarvey, told McClatchy his organization gave the list to Trump’s team in mid-February following a meeting with the president on Jan. 23. Trump met that day with McGarvey and a dozen other leaders from the building trades’ affiliated unions.
If the Trump administration can clear the regulatory hurdles in the way of major infrastructure projects, the union officials told Trump, they can deliver the workers. Trump, in turn, could fulfill his pledge to create good-paying jobs for his working-class voters.
“They want to use this as an economic development tool,” McGarvey said, “not just to refurbish the infrastructure, but to use it as a tool to create jobs.”
McGarvey said he had told Trump that the unions’ 14 affiliates around the country could train the skilled workers needed to get the projects moving — including the pipe fitters, boilermakers or underwater welders, jobs that pay anywhere from $20 to $100 per hour.
The demise of Republicans’ plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act has left McGarvey and other union officials hopeful that Trump will turn his attention to fulfilling a different campaign pledge: to invest $1 trillion in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
Unions are not a typical Republican constituency but Trump pulled out unexpected wins in union-heavy states, such as Michigan.
“I am quite confident the president is committed,” McGarvey said. “There are people working on that program in the White House, there are people on Capitol Hill working on it, there are all kinds of outside groups working on it, which is the usual course of business for big legislation.”
The White House did not respond to questions specifically about the builders unions’ list.
It issued the following statement about infrastructure planning more broadly: “President Trump promised the American people an incredible $1 trillion impact on our nation’s infrastructure,” said Lindsay Walters, deputy press secretary. “The infrastructure team at the NEC” – the White House National Economic Council – “has been hard at work gathering ideas from the 16 federal agencies and departments that impact our nation’s infrastructure, and they have reached out to every state. Together with these agencies and with leaders at the state and local levels, we have already begun the process of identifying the reforms that will help us reach that visionary goal of creating dependable and efficient facilities and resources that will last for generations.”
The unions compiled the list in consultation with all 14 of the affiliated unions, which represent construction workers in trades such as bricklaying, cement masonry and electrical. The main requirement to make the cut was “only awaiting government approval,” meaning the projects had funding sources, preferably from the private sector, and just needed expedited permitting from federal or local officials.
The unions’ list differs from another list of 50 priority infrastructure projects compiled for the Trump transition by Ohio developer Dan Slane and the consulting firm CG/LA Infrastructure, a draft of which McClatchy published in January.
But some projects appear on both lists. McGarvey said his unions had consulted with Slane on his list.
“We liked his plan and we concurred with the initial outline,” McGarvey said. “We think it was important (to spotlight) a series of projects, which are almost completely funded, completely permitted, completely engineered and are the quote-unquote real shovel-ready programs that we could get going right away.”
Among the projects listed by the unions is the $1 billion Huntington Beach Desalination Plant in California. Developed by Poseidon Resources, the project is aimed at providing a new source of water for Orange County.
It faces a pair of challenges, neither of them ones the federal government can easily solve. Desalination – creating fresh water out of salt water – requires large volumes of low-cost energy. Poseidon also must overcome the concerns of the California Coastal Commission, which wants the company to build a new water intake pipe into the ocean instead of relying on one at an adjacent power plant facing decommissioning.
Also in Southern California, the Cadiz water project aims to tap groundwater from the Mojave Desert to supply roughly 100,000 homes. It has received state approvals but needs Trump’s Interior Department to reverse an Obama-era ruling on federal permitting. In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Interior Department reversed an earlier decision and ruled that the company needs federal permits to use an existing railway right-of-way to build a 43-mile pipeline essential for delivering water.
In Wyoming, the Chokeberry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project aims to become one of the world’s largest wind-energy facilities. The project has received local, state and federal permits but could face problems with new federal regulations on wind facilities and possibly flagging White House support for wind power. The project is being developed by a company affiliated with Philip F. Anschutz, a Colorado-based billionaire with interests in oil, gas, railroads and entertainment. He has close ties to many conservatives, including Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Another project on the list is the 126-year-old Merchants railroad bridge, a vital crossing of the Mississippi River between Illinois and Missouri at St. Louis. The bridge handles more than 30 freight and Amtrak trains a day, but because of its age, only one train at a time can cross, and they’re limited to 5 mph. The bridge will have to close unless its truss spans are replaced.
The Missouri Department of Transportation has not been successful in getting federal assistance for the $215 million project. The state applied for a $40 million TIGER grant from the U.S. Transportation Department in 2015 and another $75 million grant under a program Congress established to fund freight mobility projects. Neither application was approved.
Curtis Tate contributed to this article.