Doing Trumpfrastructure Right

By Luke Phillips, Assistant Editor


Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his acceptance speech, President-elect Donald Trump promised to embark on a quest to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure, breaking sharply from decades of Republican orthodoxy on fiscal issues. Cautious progressive Democrats have signaled a willingness to work with the President-elect on this typically liberal policy area. Confused conservative Republicans in the Paul Ryan Congress have either ignored Trump’s pledge or downplayed it. If what we know about Trump holds true, we should all expect something to happen on this front.

My friend Jason Willick wrote up a very useful blog post at Via Meadia commenting on some of the dynamics at play. In particular, he and his colleagues have been covering and commenting on the sheer overhead costs of infrastructure construction and repair in modern America for quite some time. NIMBYism, overzealous environmental regulations, rent-seeking by unions and contractors, and other middling expenses all combine to balloon the cost of any given project, no matter how simple. Jerry Brown’s ill-advised high-speed rail in California is one sad example, and tunnel and bridge projects in the New York-New Jersey megapolis are another.

The Democrats who are enthusiastically jumping onboard the Trump infrastructure train, in particular, should be aware of all this. It is their interest groups- labor unions, environmental advocacies, wealthy landowners, and the like- who do the most to bring up the cost of projects for taxpayers. Willick argues that for Trump’s plan to stay out of the boondoggle zone, regulatory reform and other cost-cutting measures will have to be implemented alongside ample funding for these projects, what he calls a “grand bargain” between fiscally conservative Republicans and progressive pro-infrastructure Democrats.

He’s exactly right. The regulatory process needs to be reformed and simplified to make sure the investments will be worth it, and the investments themselves will have to be made. Perhaps this will be Trump’s chance to prove himself capable of governing and solving previously intractable problems.

Assuming such a grand bargain is struck, the regulations are reformed, and the money starts flowing, we run into a very different sort of question- what, exactly, would we be building? Trump’s promises to “re-” build infrastructure suggest he’s under no delusions about building shiny new Trump Bridges and Trump Highways. The real problem with American infrastructure, as the American Society of Civil Engineers keeps reporting every year, is underfunding for repair projects. Repair is a lot less sexy than a new transportation/energy/water/communications grid, but if we’re going to put a trillion dollars into infrastructure in 2017, it would seem that most of that would go to repair projects.

As Michael Lind wrote at NewGeography a while back, American infrastructure moving forward isn’t so much about building a new generation of solar panels and wind farms, bullet trains and high-density housing, and similar projects, as it is about rebuilding and revamping our current system of roads and highways, canals and railroads, airports and seaports, pipelines and generation plants, and the like to better service the American people and provide them with more opportunities for middle-class life. It would be nice to have glitzy finishes too- for example, a new fleet of nuclear plants- but the reality is that the infrastructure push will necessarily be more a question of revitalizing what we have than of building a green or blue future.

So on the one hand, the forthcoming Trumpfrastructure plan won’t be anywhere near as epic a moment as the Interstate Highway System or electrification of the West and South. And there’s a lot that can go wrong, if Congress doesn’t sufficiently fund it or revamp regulatory codes to pave the way for it. On the other hand, it’s probably about time we reinvested in our ailing infrastructure. The stakes are high but the rewards are higher.

We’ll be following it closely.

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