It’s one of the only things in our fractured political realm that virtually everyone agrees on. Our country is falling apart, literally. Our bridges are crumbling and in many cases are a menace to public safety. Our roads are dismal and pockmarked. Our electric grid is shoddy and out-of-date. Many of our airports are a global embarrassment that announce (almost sheepishly) “Welcome to Last Century’s Big Winner!” Amtrak derails almost monthly, even with members of Congress onboard. We’ve put off infrastructure spending for so long, through so many election cycles and congresses and presidents, that blame for this creaky mess can be evenly applied across the political spectrum. For elected officials, it’s just been easier to punt than invest.
Into this yawning abyss of inaction has stepped the Trump administration. As part of its recently announced budget, it proposed a complicated scheme that could conceivably (itals very much added by the author) raise up to $1.5 trillion for infrastructure spending over the next 10 years. At first glance this sounds like a big investment, a sane and long overdue piece of policy introduced by an administration not generally known for either policy or sanity. But this is infrastructure spending, a bipartisan no-brainer, right? So, unlike other proposals from this White House (deporting Dreamers, for example, or building an insane border wall), this requires closer analysis. A potential good idea from Donald J. Trump certainly gives me pause, but as the old saw goes, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised (or even wrong).
So, what is the administration actually proposing? Let’s start by outlining the real need. We’ve dug ourselves, with our broken shovels, into a deep hole of deferred maintenance. The Society of Civil Engineers estimates that our infrastructure (the group gives it an annual grade—this year’s was a D+) requires trillions (with a t) of dollars in spending over the next 10 years. The Trump plan only provides a paltry $200 billion dollars spread out over 10 years (virtually all of it from budget cuts!) in direct federal spending, and relies instead on a number of very shaky arrangements. It’s a rickety and cynical plan every bit as mathematically dubious as the recent tax “reform” measure, and as subject to failure as the infrastructure that it’s supposed to repair.
Sadly, the plan’s lack of ambition may not be the worst aspect about it. It totally upends the spending formulas for infrastructure projects, shifting most of the cost onto already cash-strapped states. Previously, projects could receive up to 80% of their funding from the federal government; for roads, the split was generally 50-50. The new formula forces states, many of them already teetering on the brink of insolvency, to come up with 80% of the cost. This is not an infrastructure plan, but a planned government retreat. It’s a vision for the privatization of public infrastructure, and if enacted would have disastrous consequences, especially for poor communities. For essential services like water and transportation, this would likely force states and municipalities into public-private partnerships. There’s a reason infrastructure has historically been considered a common good.
These “partnerships”—which Wall Street loves—have obvious pitfalls, as the people of Bayonne, New Jersey, will be the first to tell you. When that desperate town privatized its water system, the bills to customers spiked (remember: bond holders must be paid), which forced some residents out of their homes. What do you think for-profit water systems would do to your water bill? Or the tolls on your commute?
And even if the plan’s flimsy assumptions somehow panned out—if the states were suddenly flush with cash, and the private sector was willing to take a discount on the essential services that they were investing in—it would still be a hopelessly retrograde vision for the future. Think of it: The Trump administration is offering up a 21st-century infrastructure plan that doesn’t mention (let alone address) climate change, even though it’s certain that sea level rise alone will impose enormous and unprecedented financial burdens on coastal communities. In fact, an honest assessment of our real needs and challenges would direct most of our future infrastructure spending on climate change adaptation, on the creation of resilient cities, and the construction of a electric grid powered by renewable energy. Those efforts will be every bit as expensive as repaving the interstate highway system.
Fortunately, presidential budgets are largely an exercise in “vision.” (Man, it’s hard to type that sentence with a straight face!) As a result, Trump’s infrastructure plan is unlikely to become reality (which may be why its authors thought they could get away with incoherence). It’s not quite DOA, but it’s close. Still, inaction here isn’t exactly a win for us. It’s simply putting off the inevitable, sticking future generations with both the hard decisions and the even harder consequences. It’s business as usual, as they say in Washington.