June 06–WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s trip to Cincinnati Wednesday to highlight the nation’s infrastructure needs echoes President Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to the city’s Brent Spence Bridge.
But the similarity ends at the photo op.
While both used the city to highlight the nation’s vast infrastructure needs — Obama the bridge and Trump, who speaks at 1 p.m. at Rivertowne Marina, focusing on inland waterways — how they would pay to meet those needs is vastly different.
Obama would have funded his infrastructure plan with an injection of federal dollars. Trump — whose plan is still being formulated stages but who campaigned on the promise of a $1 trillion infusion in infrastructure — would rely far more on private investment than his predecessor.
According to his budget, he’d invest $200 billion over 10 years into the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and inland waterways. His plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control — announced Monday — would be a marker for how he would approach efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure: reliant on private funding with far fewer federal dollars involved.
By leveraging private investment, relying on state and city taxes and divesting from some transportation functions, his administration says he can do more with fewer taxpayer dollars.
It is an idea that some say could work in a small setting, but that may be harder on a broader scale.
“This is not a magical silver bullet that will solve all of our infrastructure problems,” said Steve Davis of Transportation for America, an alliance devoted to improved transportation policy.
“You can’t have a toll booth lined up at every intersection,” said Chris Runyan of the Ohio Contractors Association. “Yes, it has a place, but is it going to be a solve-all for a $1 trillion program? No.”
Runyan said while privatization has worked in some cases — he called Gov. John Kasich’s turnpike bond leveraging relatively successful — but added there’s simply no way that can be done on many of the city roads and rural highways that have unmet needs. While it might be a good answer for lane additions or bridges, “I don’t think privatization is the tool necessarily to do the baseline maintenance of our system.”
“Without a revenue stream that goes back to the investors, who wants to invest in that?” he asks.
The needs are vast. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, driving on roads in need of repair in Ohio costs each driver $475 per year, and 6.9 percent of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient. Drinking water needs in Ohio are an estimated $12.2 billion, and wastewater needs total $14.58 billion. And 362 dams are considered to be high-hazard potential.
Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the state has been creative in generating the money to invest into its roads and bridges.
“By finding efficiencies, leveraging the Ohio Turnpike, and using other innovative sources of funding, we’ve been able to put an unprecedented $14 billion to work on nearly 7,000 projects to improve travel in our state” since Kasich took office, he said.
Infrastructure is one of those rare political issues that everyone can agree on the outcome: build or improve roads and bridges, and an improved economy follows, both via those who build the roads as well as through the commerce that follows.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are farmer in the Midwest, or a mother driving your kids to and from school, or a worker or a college kid flying back and forth to school, you’re affected by infrastructure,” said White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said in a conference call with reporters.
He said the nation was “falling behind, and falling behind is affecting economic growth in the United States. The president wants to fix the problems and he doesn’t want to push these liabilities into the future.”
But Casey Dinges, a senior managing director of public affairs for the American Society of Civil Engineers, said ultimately, taxpayers pay for infrastructure.
“You can pay taxes or tolls,” he said. “When people think privatization or public-private partnerships, then think it’s free or easy money coming from somewhere. That’s not the case. You’re going to pay either way.”
But there are some advantages to privatization, too, Dinges acknowledged.
“Things can move a little faster if you’ve got a private entity involved,” Dinges said.
For decades, the federal government has paid for infrastructure improvement through the Highway Trust Fund — a pot of money paid for through the federal gasoline tax, which, at 18.4 cents a gallon, has not been increased since Bill Clinton’s first term.
“We don’t get manna from heaven,” Runyan said, “but that’s what people seem to be looking for.”
Not that they haven’t tried to find alternatives. During the Obama administration, Democrats called for the repatriating corporate profits made overseas to pay for infrastructure. Congress ultimately paid for the last highway bill with a series of budget gimmicks.
And in the meantime, at least 22 states have increased their own gas tax since 2013. Ohio last increased its gas tax in 2003.
“They’ve looked in every couch cushion on Capitol Hill to find money to keep serving transportation,” said Davis.
Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed for far more federal dollars than Trump is considering, with the Progressive Caucus suggesting $2 trillion in infrastructure investment over 10 years.
Davis said Trump’s campaign promises to invest in infrastructure “have just been continually downgraded.”
“At the heart of this plan is the plan to require states and localities that are already cash strapped and facing difficult budget circumstances already to shoulder more of the burden in order to reduce federal investment into infrastructure,” he said. “That is not a trillion dollar infrastructure plan.”