Lawmakers and policy experts say the White House cannot forget rural America as it prepares to release the outlines of its infrastructure spending package.
"If you look at the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House, it's dominated by rural legislators, and rural areas certainly can't be left behind," said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., a sixth-generation farmer who is chairman of the infrastructure committee's highway and transit subcommittee. "I don't think the president has any intention whatsoever of leaving rural areas behind."
The White House does not plan to release the outlines of a proposed infrastructure bill for Congress to consider until after Republicans complete tax reform, but as it deliberates, experts say the plan must emphasize rural districts that voted heavily for President Trump.
"Any proposal that's just uniformly focused to coastal urban areas is not going anywhere in Congress," said Joseph Kane, a senior research analyst in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "Whereas more rural sections of the country don't face the same levels of congestion and the same stresses we are seeing in cities, there are still significant needs in terms of connectivity, in particular freight connectivity when it comes to rail, highways, and intermodal improvements."
In the spring, the White House released a six-page outline of its infrastructure priorities that called for $200 billion in direct federal spending over 10 years to spur $800 billion in spending by states, localities, and private investors.
As part of the $200 billion, the Trump administration proposed an incentive program in which the federal government would offer money to state and local governments that enter agreements with private companies, in what are known as public-private partnerships.
The emphasis on partnerships worried proponents of rural infrastructure investment. Partnerships with private investors face tougher obstacles in rural areas, because it's difficult for companies in places with smaller populations to generate the revenue needed to sustain the project.
"Public-private partnerships don't help rural areas," said Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "It's a method of financing that can help in urban areas where you have really high use rates.
"The biggest need my district has is for direct federal funding," Westerman said. "There is obviously more infrastructure in urban areas, but infrastructure in rural regions are crumbling, whether we are talking about surface transportation, waterways or aviation aspects. We have all of those in my very rural district."
Trump in recent weeks has wavered on his commitment to public-private partnerships, in which private investors help fund construction and repair of roads, bridges, and airports in exchange for a share of future revenue. But private investment will be a component of any infrastructure proposal as the White House pursues an "all of the above" strategy, a Trump administration official told the Washington Examiner.
"Our infrastructure is so bad, we need to be in all-of-the-above mode," the official said.
The official acknowledged that rural areas would be unlikely to benefit much from the proposed incentive program, because grants would be awarded on a competitive basis, which would naturally favor urban, populated areas that can promise more predictable revenue streams.
"The challenge is the winner of that incentive program will primarily be in urban areas because population density correlates to new revenues," the Trump administration official said.
To address that problem, the official said the White House will propose creating a separate, dedicated funding pot for rural America. Under the program, the federal government would give grants to states using a formula that distributes the money more evenly, instead of through a competitive process. The money could be used to repair bridges and bridges and also would support needs unique to rural regions, such as broadband and water systems.
Rural areas also would have access to loans and would receive support in certain circumstances if states were to pursue public-private partnerships, but the official said the primary focus would be grants.
"We have been very focused on how to have an infrastructure bill that helps all of America, not parts of it," the Trump administration official said.
Sarah Kline, a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center focused on infrastructure, said policymakers should be looking at helping rural regions in a more holistic way.
She co-authored a report released last month that found 15 percent of major rural roads are in poor condition and one-fifth of rural bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.
Kline, who was formerly director of policy at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said the federal government should be providing direct funding to rural areas, as the Trump administration is proposing. But she says the administration should leverage private investment where it can and provide technical support to communities that pursue partnership deals.
In her report, she recommends the federal government create a rural partnerships office that works with communities to help them identify, prepare, and negotiate public-partnership deals, which are often technical.
"If you are developing an infrastructure package and you want to involve the private sector, you need a little bit of special focus on rural areas to make sure they can participate," Kline told the Washington Examiner. "With that said, it can be quite difficult for rural communities to even begin the process. Rural areas struggle with a lack of staff capacity and experience. Putting together a public-private partnership requires tech expertise, solid negotiation skills, and knowing how to allocate costs among the different parties."
Kline points to a bridge replacement project in Pennsylvania as the type of project the federal government can help facilitate.
Needing to replace hundreds of small bridges in rural areas, Pennsylvania contracted with a private partner to rebuild and finance 558 of them within four years. The state was able to entice an investor by bundling hundreds of bridges into a single project, making it larger and more lucrative.
Instead of funding the project with a user fee, Pennsylvania engaged in what's known as availability payments, in which the government contracts with a company that receives a regular payment from the state that can be raised or lowered based on performance.
"There are so many rural places we visited for the report who didn't know Pennsylvania was doing this project," Kline said. "The federal government can spread the word and educate communities. It can demonstrate that some of issues that make rural infrastructure more challenging are not insurmountable."