The Trump maglev?

Op-ed: The Trump maglev? Here's why it could happen.

I gave a talk last August on the political history of infrastructure to an academic community far removed from the I-95 Corridor. In it, I tried to predict the likelihood of the next president initiating a history shaping "big infrastructure" project during his or her first term based on characteristics of five of America's signature infrastructure projects: the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Great Depression's massive works program, the interstate highway system and assembly of the infrastructure needed to successfully launch the moon shot.

I found a commonality of three markers that, together, seemed to be good predictors of big infrastructure's likelihood: a strong or charismatic president, a unified Congress and a powerful public consensus for the project. Under those criteria, there seemed little chance of a such a project in the next administration given conventional wisdom at the time. The actual election results were a major surprise to many — if not the majority voters in three key swing states — and now that Donald Trump has assumed office, they warrant another look at the possibility.

First, a look back:

Transcontinental Railroad

Strong president: Abraham Lincoln, Republican.

Unified Congress: Republican, but artificially unified given the secession of its Confederate members along with their states.

Consensus: There was a strong consensus to build the Transcontinental, but its proposed routing was sharply contested between Slave and Free State representatives. Lincoln seized the opportunity to build the line given that the legislators' "secession" presented him with a truncated Congress that would do his will. He initiated the project not despite the Civil War, but because of it.

Panama Canal:

Strong president: Theodore Roosevelt, Republican.

Unified Congress: Both houses were majority Republican.

Consensus: America was in the expansionistic phase of its entry onto the world stage with a jingoistic president. The canal was necessary to deploy its Navy as an emerging world power.

Depression works projects:

Strong president: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, was particularly powerful during the economic crisis.

Unified Congress: Both houses were majority Democratic.

Consensus: The national economic crisis built strong support for a job-creating infrastructure work program, even though there was some bitter opposition.

Interstate highway system:

Strong president: Dwight D. Eisenhower was well respected; the Republican's leadership was earned in the existential crisis of World War II and carried over to the nuclear threat at the height of the Cold War.

Unified Congress: Both houses were majority Democratic, but an overriding concern was support for national defense during the Cold War.

Consensus: Although largely forgotten today, one rationale for the interstate highway system was its use as a population dispersal medium in case of a nuclear attack.

Moon shot:

Strong president: John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, was popular and charismatic.

Unified Congress: Both houses were majority Democratic.

Consensus: There was a national urge to meet and surpass the Russian Sputnik challenge.

Now, back to today and the future.

November's presidential election: produced the following big infrastructure markers:

Strong president: President Donald Trump, a Republican, is highly divisive.

Unified Congress: Both houses are majority Republican, but Mr. Trump is not beholden to the Republican Party or Congress for his election, nor is the Republican Congress sure of the president's programs and his consistency with Republican principles.

Consensus: The electorate is deeply divided, but there is a potential unifying bridge across the divide — a job-creating infrastructure project.

The election clearly surprised the prognosticators, and the president's talk of "Making America Great Again" has generated an early wish list of proposed infrastructure projects. None so far, however, can be called a "big infrastructure" project like those listed above. Nor are they fitting "signature" undertakings — given Mr. Trump's propensity to "sign" his projects. But there is one that might provide a political path through the markers: adoption of Barack Obama's previous Republican-defeated high speed rail initiative.

If Mr. Trump can exercise his power over his Republican Congress, as Lincoln did with his Civil War truncated Congress, he may gain both a political victory and consensus support by doing what was denied President Obama. Moreover, if he sees China's growing dominance in high speed rail as a challenge to America's "greatness," as Kennedy viewed Russia's lead in space after Sputnik's launch left America behind, he'll have a real and measurable opportunity to make the country "great again."

While it may be unrealistic to try to match the extent of China's high speed network, one project that fits Mr. Trump's business model (i.e. using other peoples' investments and his name) appears ready for takeoff right here in Baltimore.

The proposed D.C.-Baltimore maglev project is shaping up as a public/private partnership with Japan (the world's leading expert and developer of maglev operations) and private sector investors joining with the federal government in funding the enterprise. Significant funds have already been committed to feasibility studies and the environmental impact statement preparation is under way.

If Mr. Trump chooses the maglev project as a signature infrastructure piece, it is likely to be called the Trump Maglev, much like the Kennedy name attachment to the moon shot, even though JFK was tragically long dead before the launch. Given the parallel between the first telegraph signal sent between D.C. and Baltimore, the first U.S. maglev run between those two cities may well give rise to an appropriation of that first Morse code signal: "What hath Trump wrought?"

Charles H. White Jr. (chwjr57@gmail.com) formerly served as head of the Office of Railroad Policy at the Federal Railroad Administration and was a Port Commissioner for the Port of Baltimore from 2007 to 2015.

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