President Donald Trump takes part in a meeting on infrastructure with state and local officials in the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 12, 2018.
Perhaps the best that can be said of President Donald Trump’s plan to invest in neglected U.S. infrastructure was that it’s already proven itself to be the Solomon Grundy of presidential ambitions — born on a Monday, it grew ill by Thursday and will be more or less buried, if not by Saturday, then soon after. Such is the tale of an alternative fact version of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that turned out to be a 10-year, $200-billion plan that likely won’t get funded by Congress anyway.
It’s a con so obvious that even the president’s hardcore supporters haven’t had much to say about it over the course of its Grundy-like rise and fall. Hear any Republican governors or Republican-controlled state legislatures excited by the prospect of forcing states and the private sector to shoulder most of the burden for roads, bridges, airports or water and sewer lines or similar projects? How about GOP members of Congress thrilled with the prospect an extra $200 billion in new spending without the means to pay for it? Even those who think that environmental regulations are what’s really holding back local highway projects know in their heart of hearts that it takes lots and lots of money, not just lax rules, to get that heavy construction machinery rolling.
Here’s the crux of Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan — an expectation that instead of the kind of 80-20 split of federal and local funding that interstate highways get or even the 50-50 split that major transit projects receive, Washington can just offer a bit of seed money and it will henceforth be a 20-80 split with local governments and private companies becoming the primary financiers of infrastructure. Now, perhaps there are some projects out there somewhere where this can work, a segment of Interstate 95 or an HOV lane on a congested ring road that might be profitable to an entrepreneur, but that won’t fly for the vast majority of infrastructure. Nor is paving over wetlands or ignoring stormwater runoff going to make those numbers work much better.
Sell off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway or Reagan National Airport? They will still require future investments, and the folks who use those facilities will still be the people who pay for those upgrades or maintenance just as they do now, although it may be in the form of tolls instead of gas taxes or vehicle registration fees or the passenger facility charges or segment fees added on to airline tickets now. The money has to come from somewhere. That’s what makes the Trump infrastructure plan such a flimflam. The administration is just passing the buck, or, more accurately, abandoning the federal government’s proper role in protecting the nation’s economy from failing infrastructure.
What makes this all the more outrageous is that middle America and the so-called fly-over states where Mr. Trump is so popular really get the short end of this deal. Private companies aren’t especially interested in investing in rural bypasses or safety upgrades or stoplights; there just isn’t much profit there. And a lot of states are in no position to raise taxes to come to the rescue. Many already have. While the federal government hasn’t touched the gas tax since the Clinton administration, at least 26 states and D.C. have raised the gas tax over the last five years to pay for roads, bridges and the like.
President Trump is a builder, a job creator, a protector of the economy? Poppycock. The nation’s civil engineers recently gave the country a D-plus for infrastructure in 2017. The Trump plan is unlikely to rescue the semester, let alone the four-year term. The American Society of Civil Engineers offers a much simpler remedy — at least a 25-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, which would then be tied to inflation. The result? An eventual closing of the $2 trillion gap between what the country needs in infrastructure investment and what governments, federal, state and local, are now able to afford.
Sure, it would be pleasant to live in a world where tap water is free or sewage is magically whisked away at no cost after you flush, or highways sprout to handle whatever the volume of traffic drives their way. But politicians who sell such a vision are liars. We know it. You know it. And considering the underwhelming response to the Trump infrastructure plan, the fellow working in the Oval Office must know it, too.