Originally published Tuesday, March 13, 2018 at 06:00a.m.
President Donald Trump’s plan to spend $200 billion in federal money to somehow spur $1.5 trillion in state, local and private investment in infrastructure reconstruction elicited a collective eye roll when it was finally made public.
I’ll credit Trump for getting the ball rolling on an important conversation. If there’s anything that could spur bipartisan agreement in Washington, it’s road and bridge repairs, broadband expansion, water works and port and rail improvements.
Even the most hardened of small-government conservatives and ardent, big-government liberals agree that infrastructure spending produces a measurable public good.
But not the proposal the White House rolled out. And here’s why.
If the nation’s 45th president had spent even a couple of minutes hanging around with state legislators, local mayors and city council folk, he would have very quickly realized that these local officials don’t have the odd billion dollars or so hanging around for road and bridge repairs.
Barry Schoch, who served as transportation secretary under former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, and who helped usher through the passage of a more than $2 billion transportation funding package, called Trump’s announcement an encouraging first step.
But Schoch said he’s concerned “about this belief that state and local governments just have unassigned money that’s not already programmed” and could simply go out and raise the millions of dollars in matching funds needed under Trump’s proposal.
In short, Trump wants to build a bridge - and you’re going to pay for it.
“Paying for stuff stinks,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. “ No one wants to be the one to pay for it. If we’re really going to fix America’s infrastructure, we’re going to have to pay for it. There’s no way to shake out the cushions or look in your pockets. This is real money.”
But this approach is hardwired into Trump’s character.
This is a guy, after all, who’s called himself the “king of debt” and bragged that “there’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money.” And if other people get left holding the bag, as was the case with hundreds of stiffed contractors, that’s not an issue.
Trump’s plan is a far cry from President Dwight Eisenhower’s birth of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, something he considered one his administration’s signal accomplishments. And it’s not even in the same ballpark of the building boom sparked by the New Deal that put thousands of Americans back to work during the depths of the Great Depression.
Yes, it was a different time. But it’s nearly impossible to conceive of today’s polarized Congress giving the president the same blank check it gave to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.
“I don’t see the moral call to do something about our infrastructure that requires a grand, national program,” said Brian F. Carso, an associate professor of American history at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. “I think we need tons of work on our infrastructure; I think it needs to be rebuilt ... but right now, there’s not a sense of economic crisis.”
Indeed, Trump’s plan prioritizes projects such as pay-per-mile highways and parking structures, with a high return on investment to those that produce an economic or social good - which is the inverse of the spirit of the New Deal.
Experts say these “public-private partnerships” are a good “finance and delivery” tool for paying for infrastructure projects.
But they’re no substitute for raising the ongoing and “high volume” revenue sources, such as the gas tax and license and registration fees needed to pay for such large-scale projects.
“It’s time for Congress to do its part and raise some real revenue,” Schoch, the former Pennsylvania transportation secretary, said.
Borick, the Muhlenberg College political science professor, offered a similar sentiment.
“If the president was serious about wanting to get this done, he’d have to take on some baggage, burn some political capital, and call for something that’s unpopular, but needed,” like a higher federal gas tax or other federal revenue-raiser.
“Calling for building [roads and bridges] is apple pie and baseball,” he continued. “Who doesn’t want better roads and water systems? But you have to find the revenue to pay for it.”
After passing a tax-cut package and a budget deal that’s expected to blow up the federal deficit, a safer bet is that Americans will have to live with bumpy roads and rickety bridges for at least a while longer.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the opinion editor and political columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.