The Unpleasant Facts Behind Trump’s Infrastructure Proposal
Here’s a question I haven’t seen many people ask as they react to Trump’s infrastructure guidelines, which come in advance of an actual proposed bill:
Will $200 billion in federal investment break even with the $250+ billion in cuts to infrastructure in Trump’s FY2019 budget?
Researchers at the Wharton School of Business, Trump’s alma mater, don’t think it’s likely. Noting that Trump’s budget actually takes away $255 billion (if certain cuts are permanent — if they’re not, the minimum that would be cut is $185 billion) from a variety of infrastructure-building programs, they are not exactly bullish on the chances that $200 billion in matching funds for state and local projects will stimulate $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending. In fact, when researchers at Wharton gamed out the situation over the next decade, they found that the cuts plus the investments could result in a net loss of $55 billion for infrastructure. The absolute best-case scenario, which they found unlikely, would be an increase of $15 billion — worlds away from the $1 trillion Trump had pledged to invest in infrastructure.
Last week, Rob Fischer wrote — correctly — about the ultimately pointless debate over the gas tax, and how Trump’s proposal of a 25 cent increase would do very little to replenish the cash-strapped Highway Trust Fund. That’s very true. On top of all that, though, Trump’s proposed budget for the coming year cuts $100 billion in outlays for the Highway Trust Fund, making it reliant, for the first time, on gas tax revenue alone. Keep in mind, this is a fund whose sole purpose is to repair roads that have been judged by third-party organizations across the country, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, as being in crisis-level disrepair.
Also seeing cuts: the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, is being dropped completely. TIGER is a program that is hugely popular with Republican and Democratic governors alike, and has offered grants to troubled capital projects. Getting rid of TIGER represents a $5 billion cut to heavily-used highway, bus, inland port, bridge and rail projects across the nation.
Gone, too, is several billion dollars in Capital Investment Grant funding, as funding for existing grants will be limited below what had been promised to the projects earlier. That’s another $10 billion gone for rail and bus transit across the country.
This is just a drop in the bucket of what’s being cut. For the full rundown, head on over to Wharton’s study. And, at the risk of sounding alarmist, let’s not discount the possibility that the best-case scenario will play out from the matching funds move, and that over ten years our infrastructure spending will increase by $15 billion.
But even under that scenario, we’ve still got a wasted opportunity on our hands. Why?
Because the standard of success under this proposal is whether an infrastructure project can generate money. Plain and simple. There’s no weight placed on how badly the project is needed, and — aside from $20 billion earmarked for “transformative” projects — no requirement that the infrastructure projects actually modernize our system and prepare us for the future. Let’s let White House infrastructure adviser D.J. Gribbin sum that point up for us. Responding to that criticism at a speaking engagement for AASHTO recently, Gribbin said, “We don’t want to second-guess your project selection. We’re pretty convinced that if you’re going to spend 80, 90 percent of the cost of a project that you’ve picked a good project. Congratulations!”
And that’s the big disappointment for this reporter. Even if things play out as the administration hopes they will, and a net increase is seen on infrastructure spending, there’s no incentive — aside from, arguably, a negative incentive — to take the risks necessary to build the smart roads of the future. The safe play for state and municipalities, and private companies that wish to enter into a partnership with the federal government under the plan, is to go with same-old-same-old projects that could very easily soon be just as outdated as the gas tax.
Politics is politics. A Republican or Democratic administration could, and would, just as easily pull the same bait-and-switch in one way or another. There’s nothing surprising there. And it’s sad that, outside of the partisan cheering squads for each side, the average American would be completely unsurprised by the cynicism of either party as it tried to claim some good headlines while advancing an agenda that isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the nation.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point it out. Because, lobbyists and campaigns and super PACs aside, politicians are public servants — and most of them do take that role seriously, despite how it may look to us on the sidelines. Yes, they’re more likely to see things relatively in line with how their top contributors see them. And yes, Trump is a love-him-or-hate-him figure that seems to be a lightning rod for controversy in the media. Still, he’s the President, no matter what your personal opinion may be. And this issue is bigger than any of the offices these men and women hold.
The point is, there aren’t many elected officials that want to see America’s stature diminished. But can a nation that has been deeply attuned to revolutionary movements since its inception and throughout its history be left behind — in what could wind up being the biggest revolution in technology and transportation that the world has ever seen — and still be considered the greatest country in the world?
I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that President Trump has found himself in a position where he could stamp his name on a legacy that would dwarf all the partisan rancor that has consumed most of the media’s attention since he took office. Let’s hope, for the sake of future American generations, that DOT Secretary Chao, Trump, and other top officials take their time, reconvene, and come back with a new proposal that will invigorate the economy, avoid cutting critical revenue streams for infrastructure, and ultimately advance the autonomous vehicle/smart city revolution.