As President Trump passes the milestone of his first 100 days in office, his most effective tool so far has been what he calls “the sledgehammer”—the pen he has used to sign about 30 executive orders, plus memos and pieces of legislation, that knock down a wide range of Obama-era rules and decisions.

Among Trump’s construction-related actions are measures to ease contractor disclosure mandates, narrow federal authority over dredging near bodies of water and remove Obama’s roadblocks of  high-profile energy pipeline projects.

But the sledgehammer hasn’t been effective in advancing Trump’s legislative priorities. GOP-drafted legislation to abolish President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and set up a new system failed in March to gain enough Republicans’ votes to ensure passage in the House. But House Republicans revised the bill and the new version was passed on May 4 by a narrow  217-213. The outlook for the legislation in the Senate is unclear.

On tax reform, a second top legislative item, Trump has just gotten the ball rolling, unveiling a bare-bones, one-page outline for an ambitious tax-cut plan that could benefit many engineering and construction firms. But the outline quickly sparked strong criticism from Democrats.

If that proposal were to become a reality, it would provide a stunningly large revenue lift to engineering firms and contractors—and more jobs for workers—around the country.

Construction industry officials are most anxious about what they view as the biggest of Trump’s Big Three legislative initiatives: his promised plan to pour $1 trillion into improving highways, bridges and other infrastructure over 10 years.

If that proposal were to become a reality, it would provide a stunningly large revenue lift to engineering firms and contractors—and more jobs for workers—around the country.

Trump’s regulatory actions are important, says Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president. But he adds, “The biggest thing that Congress and the president can do is to pass a major infrastructure bill to help our country stimulate economic growth.”

Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan points out that the American Society of Civil Engineers pegs U.S. infrastructure needs at $4.6 trillion. O’Sullivan says, “A trillion is a big step forward.”

Question marks continue to swirl around the infrastructure plan, however, months after Trump floated it during the presidential campaign. As one industry source puts it: “The timing is confusing, the potential content is confusing—whether it’s going to be money, whether it’s going to be primarily regulatory [streamlining]—what type of projects, who’s picking the projects?”

The source adds, “It’s all up in the air and obviously … not happening in the first 100 days.”

How soon is 'soon' ?

Trump continues to say that a sizable infrastructure measure is in the works. On April 18, he said the plan “is coming and it’s coming fast.” But “fast” is looking like months from now—and that is just until the proposal’s release. Then, Congress will review, debate and, undoubtedly, change it.

The administration has been holding talks aimed at sketching out the proposal. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney says the plan is “in its early discussions.” Speaking at an April 20 economics conference in Washington, D.C., he added, “I don’t think you’ll actually start to see specific things to be able to …vote on until the fall.”

Mulvaney also said Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, which has been targeted for a May release, will have “a $200-billion number” for federal infrastructure spending, sparking five times that amount in private-sector financing.

Bud Wright, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials executive director, says, “They are willingly taking input from many parties in developing the plan.” He adds, “Some of the signals that we have heard would suggest that, certainly, we’re not going to see $1 trillion of new [federal] funding as a part of this package. There seems to be a strong emphasis on [project-approval] process reform and attracting private capital for infrastructure investment.”

Mulvaney’s statements, like earlier ones from Trump and others on his team, left out key points, such as how much of the $200 billion would be new money or, perhaps, repackage existing spending.

In discussing the 2018 budget outline that Trump released in March, which had no funds for U.S. Transportation Dept. programs such as transit new starts and popular TIGER grants, Mulvaney said administration officials see the zeroed-out programs as “less efficient” than the infrastructure plan that is in the works.

Bruno Roy, CFO of Montreal-based WSP, noted that despite a strong infrastructure platform touted by Canada’s Liberal government when elected in October 2015, “it’s taken 18 months for the first Canadian project to trickle down.”

Sectors seek funding shares

Construction and engineering companies are pushing to make sure Trump’s proposal represents their sector focus, whether surface and air transportation or drinking water-wastewater, inland and coastal waterways, or electric power.

Joe Bennett, vice president for engineering with electric transmission owner and operator ITC Holdings Corp., says, “We see merit in infra­structure investment plans that carry provisions for modernizing perhaps the most critical national infrastructure of all: our interstate high-voltage transmission system.”

Nathan Gardner-Andrews, National Association of Clean Water Agencies chief advocacy officer, says, “We’re definitely looking for a significant funding level for water and wastewater infrastructure.” One concern is what share of the plan public-private partnerships will have. He observes, “That model does not work as well on the water side as it does, say, on the surface-transportation side.”

Even though administration officials frequently mention highways, bridges and transit when they talk about the coming program,Wright says that doesn’t necessarily mean surface transportation will get most of the $1 trillion. He adds, “We want to make sure that transportation gets its fair share.”

Transportation groups also want the plan to include a long-term fix for the Highway Trust Fund, which has needed general-fund transfers of $143.3 billion since 2008 to stay in the black. “They know they’ve got to address the Highway Trust Fund,” Hansen says. “It’s going to crater, and they can’t let it crater.”

Design firm chief financial officers remain mixed on Trump administration impacts. In a survey of 154 CFOs conducted by management consultant EFCG, respondents in transportation sector firms were split between being positive and neutral on Trump impacts.

Almost 75% of those in environmental consulting firms were either neutral or negative, although 62% of those in water and wastewater companies were positive on the Trump impact on their sector.  Ash Wason, CFO of engineer Carollo, which specializes in water and wastewater treatment design, said population growth and other catalysts would spur work in that sector, “regardless of Trump,” although he speculated that regulatory reform ahead could have strong negative impact on plant-rehabilitation investment.

Weighing In

Mike Sweeney, HNTB Corp. president for the Northeast division, urges a forward-focused plan. He says, “We need to look at infrastructure priorities and approaches so new spending goes beyond just catching up to where we should have been years ago [and] takes us to where we need to be for the future.”

He cites “new and smart” projects, such as the New York City area’s proposed Gateway Program, which includes a new Hudson River tunnel.

“Infrastructure spending is something we need badly,” says Scott Moss, president of Fort Lauderdale-based construction management firm Moss & Associates. But he adds, “If [Trump] really does spend that money on infrastructure, that further exacerbates the labor-market shortage.”

Daniel J. Filer, vice president for business development at Austin, Texas, contractor Ferrovial Agroman,  said Trump’s interest in infrastructure and private-sector investment is encouraging. But he adds, “It is important that this plan is structured and implemented in a way that addresses priority projects, applies the appropriate contracting structures and considers the needs of the tax-paying public above all else.”

Whenever the plan is unveiled, it will be only the first step toward making the $1 trillion a reality. Infrastructure backers say public-works bills traditionally win bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, citing the big vote margins for the 2015 FAST Act surface-transportation measure and the 2016 WIIN Act for water-project funding. 

Administration officials say private dollars will be a part of the package through P3s or other mechanisms. But Hill Democrats’ $1-trillion infrastructure plan, rolled out in January, uses only direct federal funds.

Wright says, “Frankly, many of the projects that we think are going to make a difference on the transportation side are not necessarily ones that have the potential to generate revenue. And those are likely to be the kinds of projects that would be most attractive to the private sector.”

Lawmakers from rural states, such as Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), have made it clear that P3s don’t work in their areas and will pitch to include substantial direct federal funds in the infrastructure package.

Stephen Sandherr, Associated General Contractors of America CEO, says, “When we have a plan, it’s going to be difficult to thread the needle to get all of the disparate factions on Capitol Hill to support an infrastructure program.” He observes, “You’ve got Republicans who say it has to be paid for. You have Democrats who are going to be pushing back on some opportunities to streamline the permitting process. You’re going to have all kinds of reasons to be against this, even though the public seems to want to get it done.”

Tax-cut outline

Trump’s proposed tax outline, announced on April 26, also faces a long, difficult path on Capitol Hill. A key feature of the plan cuts the corporate tax rate to 15% from 35%.

It also would apply the 15% rate to “pass-through” entities, such as partnerships and sole proprietorships, which are taxed at individual, not corporate, rates. More than 80% of AGC member firms and more than 75% of Associated Builders and Contractors’ member firms are pass-throughs.

Trump’s tax proposal also calls for companies to bring back to the U.S. what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin estimates to be “trillions” of dollars in overseas profits. But unlike earlier “repatriation” proposals from the Obama administration and former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, the Trump plan doesn’t earmark for infrastructure that potential revenue infusion.

Chuck Kemp, CFO of Power Engineers, Boise, noted that the firm has boosted its lobbying efforts to affect policy in key business areas, such as medical costs. He says the firm’s cost of employee coverage has risen 20%. “We need to be out in front on this,” he told CFO peers at an April conference in New York. But based on an estimate of hands raised among the more than 100 attendees, only about 20% had adopted a lobbying strategy.

Looking internationally,  "ongoing talk of a new tax regime gives hopes of an uptick in the U.S. economy and therefore investment opportunities," says Julian Anderson, president of global cost consultant Rider Levett Bucknall. "However, this is tempered by the difficulty that the administration seems to be having getting important legislation passed." He says non-U.S. industry firms and investors are looking for "certainty and stability."

Anderson adds, "The ongoing threat of trade wars with major trading partners means that the U.S. is not considered as reliable a partner as it has been in the past. Once some of the administration’s fervor for renegotiating trade deals has run its course, then international nvestors will likely feel more comfortable."

Executive order vs. Executive Order

Of the administration’s regulatory actions so far, contractor groups point to legislation Trump signed on March 27 abolishing what critics have called the “blacklisting” rule. It required potential bidders on federal projects to disclose past labor and workplace-safety violations, going back three years.

They also single out a measure, signed in April, to revoke an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule extending the statute of limitations for citing firms for violations. Those regulations were canceled under the Congressional Review Act, which provides fast-track action against rules issued within a certain time period.

Contractors also praise a Feb. 28 order directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin revising a 2015 rule that defines which streams, wetlands and other water bodies are subject to federal regulation. “That was a big one,” says Kristen Swearingen, ABC vice president for legislative and political affairs.

LIUNA’s O’Sullivan cites memos Trump issued on Jan. 24 to get new energy pipelines moving, including Keystone XL and Dakota Access, and expedite project permitting. Those actions have advanced pipeline projects involving more than 22,500 jobs for construction union members, he says.

More action on the regulatory front is coming. For example, the Congressional Review Act did not apply to the “waters of the U.S.” rule, and the administration is just getting started on a revision.

It will have to be drafted and then formally proposed, undergo a public comment period, possibly be altered and published as a final version. That process could take a year or two. However, the National Wildlife Federation has said it will seek to block the rewrite in federal court.

Labor regulations

With R. Alexander Acosta’s April 28 swearing in as Labor secretary, the administration may take a new look at a 2016 Obama rule that raises the salary threshold at which companies must pay overtime. The rule’s opponents also have challenged it in the courts.

ABC wants the administration to rescind an Obama executive order that encourages project labor agreements on federal contracts over $25 million. The group also wants to reinstate a George W. Bush administration directive that federal contracts should not require the use of PLAs. But construction unions are sure to oppose that plan.

With Trump in the White House, Sandherr says, “We’re advancing the ball, rather than playing defense, and on a lot of these issues we’ve crossed the 50-yard line.”

But Trump and his allies don’t face a clear field. Congressional Democrats and their supporters, such as environmental groups, are digging in to a “prevent defense” formation. They are aiming to alter the president’s proposals on Capitol Hill and go to court to block his deregulation moves. But construction groups hope both sides can team up on their industry’s chief priority: a hefty infrastructure package.

Story updated on May 5 with House health-care bill approval.


Trump’s Executive Orders and Deregulation Actions Include:

  • Buy American, Hire American

April 18: Trump signs executive order that mandates tougher enforcement of “Buy American” laws and counters what the administration sees as abuses of the system that authorizes H-1B visas for skilled workers.

  • OSHA Record-Keeping

April 3: Trump signs legislation that cancels a 2016 OSHA rule, which extended the statute-of-limitations period for citing companies’ past incidents.

  • Clean-Air Regulations

March 28: The president signs a directive to start the process of undoing Obama’s so-called Clean Power Plan limits on power plants’ carbon emissions.

  • The “Blacklisting” Rule

 March 27: The president signs legislation that strikes down a Labor Dept. rule that requires federal contractors to disclose past violations of labor and workplace-safety laws.

  • Keystone Oil Pipeline

March 24: Reversing an Obama decision, the current administration approves a permit to build the 1,200-mile project.

  • Clean Water Act and “Waters of the U.S.” Rule

Feb. 28: Trump issues a directive that tells the EPA to start the process of revising a 2015 rule that defines federally regulated “waters of the United States.” But the revision process will be lengthy, and environmentalists vow to challenge the new rule in court.

  • Regulatory Review Task Forces

Feb. 24: Trump signs an executive order telling agencies to set up task forces with an eye toward repealing, replacing or changing existing regulations that hamper job creation or whose costs exceed their benefits.

  • 2 for 1

Jan. 30: Trump signs an executive order that requires agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one they issue.

  • Keystone and Dakota Pipelines

Jan. 24: The president issues a memo directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reexamine whether to cancel the December decision to halt construction of the Dakota pipeline. He also signs a memo to begin the process of restarting the Keystone pipeline. On Feb. 7, an Army official issues a memo granting an easement allowing the restart of construction on the Dakota project.

  • Project Streamlining

Jan. 24: Trump signs an executive order telling agencies to expedite reviews of “high-priority infrastructure projects,” as identified by states. As of April 30, no projects have been approved for the program.