June 13–President Donald Trump’s best idea so far is to launch a massive infrastructure program. But his plans need a lot of work.
Trump characteristically made big promises last week, touting a trillion-dollar investment scheme to build or repair and renovate highways, bridges, airports, ports and inland waterways. All that is badly needed and should win bipartisan support in Congress. He also said he’ll eliminate so many federal regulations that projects normally requiring 10 years can get done in two. The details, though, are disappointing.
The federal government would provide just 20 percent of the funding — $200 billion over the next decade. Yet, as CNN Money reports, the president’s budget eliminates $255 billion in other infrastructure spending over the same period. The White House says that money was to be spent on wasteful projects. Congress may not have the same opinion.
In any case, the plan leaves an $800 billion gap. The White House imagines it will be filled by private companies and state and local governments.
State and local governments count on federal dollars to help them with infrastructure projects, not on federal mandates to spend more of their own money. States already face the prospect of receiving less money from Washington for education, health, transportation, environment, housing and social services.
As for private investment, residents of Mecklenburg and Iredell counties know what that means: toll roads. The state hired a firm to build additional lanes on a heavily traveled stretch of Interstate 77, granting it the right to collect tolls for 50 years. Private companies invest in public infrastructure to make a profit. This has generated strong political opposition in those counties, and a national infrastructure plan that draws most of its funding from tolls likely won’t be popular, either, and might not win support in Congress.
Big projects may face too many regulatory hurdles and take too long. The transcontinental railroad was built faster in the 1860s than some new runways are constructed at modern airports, once environmental impact studies and other requirements are completed. On the plus side, these projects are good job creators, which is an argument for 100 percent federal spending.
Trump should flesh out the details of his plan soon if he wants to see congressional action this year. Unfortunately, that’s not his style. He submitted no health care plan but relied instead on the House of Representatives to produce one — which failed to meet his own promises. His tax-reform proposal was contained on a single sheet of paper, again leaving the nitty-gritty to Congress — an invitation to inaction. And now the infrastructure plan, which the White House explains in a 30-second YouTube video. Seriously.
More than sound-bite leadership is called for this time. A health care bill and tax reform, if either gets done, will pass with bare majorities in Congress and fail to please most Americans. But Trump could get an important win on infrastructure if he puts forward a solid proposal with money behind it. He shouldn’t miss the chance.