The Great American Infrastructure Farce

Matt Born/The Star-News via AP

The enormity of America’s infrastructure crisis is well documented. Here, construction continues on the new Surf City high-rise bridge in Surf City, North Carolina. 

The national news media echo chamber duly produced the same headline from Tuesday’s White House infrastructure meeting with President Trump: a $2 trillion infrastructure “agreement” touted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer during a weirdly sanguine follow-up news conference, punctuated with vague platitudes and phantom bipartisanship.

The $2 trillion is merely a number that gained traction after a St. Patrick’s Day confab between Trump and Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the House Ways and Means chairman. Agreeing on a number, however, does not necessarily portend a solid plan to repair structurally deficient bridges, extend broadband internet, or replace the lead pipes that still bring water to millions of American homes. Nor does the $2 trillion number deliver a host of cutting-edge 21st-century projects. Trump is sold on $2 trillion, apparently because he thinks it sounds better than lower figures, according to a source interviewed by The Hill.

The enormity of America’s infrastructure crisis is well documented. Public support is strong for infrastructure improvements built by American workers using domestically produced products and materials. While the scope of new investments in projects like high-speed rail can be (and is) debated ad nauseam, shoring up existing networks like electrical grids, arguably the worst in the developed world, should not be controversial.

“Why don’t we take a lesson from local and state governments that have been successful in raising money and be a little bit more articulate about what we plan to accomplish?” says Beth Osborne, the director of Transportation for America, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But a coherent roster of goals and projects has yet to be articulated by the administration. A long-forgotten 2016 study, “40 Proposed U.S. Transportation and Water Infrastructure Projects of Major Economic Significance,” would be a good place to start, if only it hadn’t been delivered by Obama administration Treasury Department officials on their way out the door. Since no Obama-era undertakings can even be mentioned to Trump, any new master list of big, bold, beautiful projects that Trump keeps talking about will be subjected to the suspect decision-making capabilities of all the president’s men and women.

In addition to unspecified transportation, broadband, water, and energy initiatives, Pelosi and Schumer have said they wanted to see investments in schools, housing, and resiliency and risk mitigation projects to better combat climate change. According to Politico, more asks are tumbling down Capitol Hill from members of Congress, including workforce development initiatives and measures to streamline permitting.

Trump still has not given any credence to efforts to devise a coherent plan. Former White House economic czar Gary Cohn’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure package put the onus on local and state governments to raise most of the funding. That plan died an ignoble death. This week, Trump labeled his former national economic adviser’s plan “stupid,” explaining that he feared the lawsuits that he believes public-private projects, of the kind Cohn suggested, are subject to.

One problem with a Trumpian national infrastructure program is his belief that states that did not vote for him are not worthy of federal dollars—a mindset that should doom any such initiative in the Democratic-controlled House. There’s a spotlight on broadband, presumably because the president understands that he could enhance his standing with his favored rural constituencies who lack high-speed internet (and could ignore the underserved urban areas he loathes).

The administration’s demonstrated hostility to mass transit would likely cause conflict, as Schumer, an advocate of the New York-New Jersey rail-centric Gateway Program, well knows. Highway projects may find favor, but there is a big difference between good projects like replacing aging bridges and bad ones like constructing highways that bisect neighborhoods and cut them off from resources.

For now, the Democrats plan to wait for the White House to release the details of its proposals. But Schumer’s demand that Trump rescind portions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, his signature piece of legislation, to help pay for infrastructure projects is a nonstarter (as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans have pointed out) that could crater the talks.

Nor will Schumer countenance a gas tax increase (and neither will the president or Republican members of Congress, since such a move most likely would affect electoral prospects in rural regions). Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, is also not a fan and has signaled that a renegotiated U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal is a more important priority.

So most signs point to an impasse. Little will likely come of this foray other than providing B-roll for Democrats and Republicans to use in their respective attack ads on each other. Once Capitol Hill and the White House begin their annual tussle over budget appropriations, a national infrastructure program may fade from the headlines. Three weeks from now, will the Trump administration and the Democratic leadership really deliver the fiscal epiphany they have gauzily promised, agreeing to raise the revenues that pay for $2 trillion worth of needed investments? The outcome is far from promising.

President Trump likes his speechwriters to tuck infrastructure mentions into his remarks when he heads out to Maga-landia. There’s little doubt that he will be happy to heap spoonfuls of blame on “Nancy and Chuck” if a deal can’t get done. Trump has not shown any willingness to reach across the partisan divide on an issue that matters to so many Americans, and he probably won’t start now. Such a gesture would be an aberration in a presidency that has produced no programs of merit.

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