Potholes Ahead for Infrastructure

Terry H. Schwadron

May 6, 2019

When Democratic congressional leaders stepped out of the White House last week, they seemed surprised to be able to announce that they had finished a reasonable conversation with the president about undertaking a $2 trillion set of infrastructure projects, an agreement basically confirmed moments later by the White House without the number.

The surprise was that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer could find such a swath of agreement with Donald Trump while the Democratic-majority House turned much more aggressive about challenging the president and his team for a wide variety of bad behavior, missing ethics and strange policies.

What should not be a surprise, however, is that a week later, there is no infrastructure plan. There is no list of broken bridges, of airports needing overhaul, of roads, mass transit or anything else beyond a general statement that infrastructure should include broadband wiring for more rural areas of the country.

Importantly, there is no idea of where the $2 trillion is supposed to come from.

Therein lies the issue, of course. To skeptical citizens, this “agreement” sounds a lot like a cynical campaign pitch that no one has any intention of fulfilling.

Indeed, by this weekend, there were news reports in The Washington Postand elsewhere that Republican leaders already are backing away from the would-be proposals. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney both are reported to be against spending at that level.

“The resistance from Trump’s own party illustrates how quickly the bipartisan idea has been imperiled in Washington, as the president heads into his reelection campaign with no significant legislative agenda and besieged by congressional investigations,” reported The Post. “The infrastructure effort also underscores Trump’s penchant for talking up deals with Democrats behind closed doors — leaving his own advisers and congressional Republicans to reel him back.”

Trump reportedly wants to spend only perhaps $100 million of the total, with the rest coming from private companies, who would, in effect, own the improvement. Think of a toll road where some cement or construction company would own the road after it is done, and you and I would spend the rest of our lives paying tolls to a private company.

Democrats generally don’t favor that kind of approach, preferring to raise taxes now to pay for the necessary improvements. But even raising gasoline and fuel taxes by something like 30% would underwrite perhaps a quarter of that kind of huge project number.

Plus, as Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, has noted, the normal way of going about this sort of project is to list the needs first, and see what they add up to, rather than starting with an amorphous total and working backwards. (News reports had suggested last week that Trump liked the big, round number of $2 trillion).

So, will this list include the new, proposed Gateway Tunnel between New York and New Jersey? Will it overhaul airports? Will it favor roads over mass transit? Could it actually makes the trains run on time in the nation’s most populous cities? There is no way of knowing.

It seems much clearer that Trump will see such a juicy total, were it to be adopted, and seek to redirect it to building the Wall along the southern border, a project that Democrats oppose on many grounds, but least of which is that it does not repair needed transportation or safety projects.

But infrastructure as a campaign pledge? That’s one on which all parties can agree, as a stimulus to jobs and the economy as well as in support of public safety. Even if infrastructure proposals die in Congress, a better-than-good chance, both Trump and Democrats can say that each tried to pursue what should be a bipartisan goal.

In the meantime, the proposal also raises the question of the national debt and what we are or are not doing about its growth. Control of the debt has been a longtime Republican tenet of power, to control and limit the size of government, to keep taxes from rising and to prefer private development over big public construction projects. That concern has disappeared with Trump in the White House. Instead, Republican talk about doing almost anything to sustain the long period of growth in jobs and profitability that goes back to 2009.

The next time you hit a pothole on the highway, think again. It will be a good while before there is a repair.



Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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