Terry H. Schwadron

Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump promised to go after $1 trillion worth of investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

He never said how he would do it, though there was early speculation that he would ask private contractors to take on the work — in return for the right to charge tolls, for example, on new roadways. It would be a way to get improvements — and immediate construction jobs — without a big infusion of tax money. Instead, magically, improvements would appear, and instead of paying through long-term government bonds or actual investment of tax dollars, we would end up paying usage fees for the rest of our lives to drive on privately owned highways. It is this route that will annoy Democrats.

Now, as President, finally we will see the plan coming into being this week:

Yesterday, he announced the plans that will continue this week for a first effort to spin air traffic control functions of the Federal Aviation Administration to a nonprofit corporation out of the apparent belief that a semi-private group will move more quickly to modernize air operations and eliminate delays. Airline routes still rely on land-based radar, requiring more, shorter straight line routes, at a time when other countries have switched to GPS systems that allow more direct routes at lower costs, for example.

The FAA would continue to oversee safety and investigate accidents, but actual operations would be the province of the private group — who will pass their costs on to travelers, shippers, anyone using airports and air routes. Mr. Trump emphasized that modernized air operations are good for business and jobs.

Some of this has been discussed before, with individuals from both parties agreeing that there are too many regulations. But there were also apprehensions about turning the air operations to the airlines themselves to decide on services. He apparently is reanimating a bill in Congress as a vehicle that had failed previously to draw sufficient interest.

Canada did this, resulting in streamlinging and a good safety record, though at higher prices that are passed on to consumers (Mr. Trump suggested there will be lower prices). Now some would note that the very corporations getting tax cuts are also being given license the how-tos of making more from airports. The unions involved are divided, seeing freedom from government budget debates, but suspecting salary loss. Air operations involve about 30,000 employees, half controllers.

I have to note that having a semi-autonomous Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York does not mean we have more subway improvements; a shared Port Authority between New York State and New Jersey does not mean building a new tunnel beneath the Hudson River. Indeed, you daily get an earful about delays and traffic in and around the city. In the end, this is a question about providing the investment, not the nature of the government-private ownership — or a need to trash Obama.

In the same fashion, the President wants cities, states and private companies to take on improving waterways and roads.

It seems that the President’s agenda is simply, as in health care, environmental and education proposals, to get the federal government out of the way, not to solve the problems. By making infrastructure issues the responsibilities of overloaded cities and states, we’re merely moving the responsibility, not fixing the roads or water services.

Every sizable local project I hear about from adding a Second Avenue subway line to fixing immediate problems for Amtrak lines at Penn Station gets held up waiting for federal money that never seems to arrive.

A Democratic approach would be some version of raising federal spending by a trillion dollars over many years, allowing a fund that would pay for the work. The jobs goal would be similar, but it would be paid for. There is no appetite in a Republican-dominated Congress to adopt such a tax-dependent program, no matter what the need.

It’s a good thing we have states; federalism apparently means handing anything difficult off to the states. Where the states are supposed to get financing is unclear or never addressed. After all, Mr. Trump won’t be running for reelection having to defend decisions by Nebraska or West Virginia governors.

Increasingly, I hear colliding statements out of the same President Trump. He wants things done, and quickly. He will throw out people, agencies, countries, anything that gets in the way. And he prefers private business people who know more than any government appointee could ever know about construction and infrastructure. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to pay for any of this, and actually has proposed cutting the federal Transportation Department spending on existing projects.

We shouldn’t be surprised. By now, we have become accustomed to hearing one thing and seeing another from this White House. (Yesterday, looking away from infrastructure, for example, the White House said it wasn’t a Travel Ban that the White House wanted, only now the President tweets that a Travel Ban is exactly what he wants. We care about and relate to terrorism attacks in London, but then the tweet there is something awry with a phrase in the calming language about more police presence from London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, who happens to be Muslim.)

Look, the bottom line is that we need infrastructure repairs, we need airport modernizations, we need bridge and roadway repairs, and the temporary jobs that these projects bring would be welcome, particularly in localized areas where other jobs are disappearing. But we need to recognize that it is money, not magic or administrative sleight of hand, that gets things done.

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