High on the list of Donald Trump’s false promises were his vows that his administration would “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land.”
This line, dropped into his 2018 State of the Union address, was just one more instance of Trump’s epic bamboozling. In the real world, where dollars get allocated, it’s members of Congress and state officials—not anyone in the administration—who are doing the heavy lifting.
West Virginia’s country roads have been celebrated in song, but in real life they are some of the nation’s worst. A CNBC report ranked West Virginia at number five (tied with Maryland) in its list of states with the worst infrastructure, noting that almost half of its roads were in “poor” or “mediocre” condition. The Mountain State shot up to third in a 24/7 Wall Street survey that added high-risk dams and structurally-deficient bridges to the mix of needs.
Last year, TRIP, a national transportation research group, found that a typical West Virginia driver averaged $650 annually in additional vehicle operating costs due to the condition of the state’s roads.
West Virginia has taken it upon itself to get its roads in a better shape. In April, the state managed to secure $21 million in Federal Highway Administration funding for road and highway repairs, and last year, state voters approved a $1.6 billion bond issuance, and $800 million of those bonds had been sold by May. That $21 million in federal funds came to just 1.4 percent of the dollars that West Virginia agreed to pay off to repair its infrastructure.
Even when his administration does disgorge some money for infrastructure, those funds come out of other transportation projects. Trump’s transportation budget requests, meager though they were, were predicated on cuts to Department of Transportation programs, and required states to assume more of the burdens of paying for infrastructure, rather than offering any serious new federal money for investments.
So the president turned up Tuesday in Charleston packing nothing more than his usual bromides about “clean, beautiful, West Virginia coal” and NFL players who take a knee. He name-checked his favorite arch-villains: Maxine Waters, Nancy Peloisi, and Chuck Schumer. He did mention one infrastructure project, the border wall, his multibillion-dollar, applause-generating, infrastructure obsession guaranteed to keep some people out but won’t help the good people of West Virginia get anywhere. (Even without a wall, immigrants don’t come to West Virginia, which has the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents of any state.)
In a speech that rambled on and on for more than 60 minutes, the words “infrastructure,” “roads,” “bridges,” or “dams” never passed Trump’s lips.
Up north, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy plans to hold a “pep rally” of his own in September for the Gateway Program, the perpetually delayed New York-New Jersey rail tunnel and related projects that Trump said he intended to jumpstart until he realized that Senate Democratic Leader Schumer refused to support his wall in return.
Murphy, a Democrat, plans to recruit members of Congress, transportation advocates, and business leaders for a photo op at the Portal Bridge that will no doubt rouse the White House and the Department of Transportation from their slumber (for surely, Gateway must have slipped their minds this summer) and persuade them to send some funds their way. (If you believe that, you, too, can boost transportation spending by subscribing to our offer to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.)
These developments come almost two long years after transportation wonks could scarcely contain themselves when both Trump and Hillary Clinton embraced the obscure but critically important topic of infrastructure—infrastructure!—repairing roads, building bridges, digging tunnels, refurbishing airports, running fast trains—projects that would be the envy of the civilized world.
Instead, most of the civilized world has just about deserted America and the man for whom some predicted a scintilla of legacy if he would stop spewing disinformation on Twitter and just build stuff like real presidents do—like Franklin Roosevelt, who gave America the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Dwight Eisenhower who fought for the interstate highway system.
Of course, no one anywhere ever confused Trump with FDR or Ike. In a short period of time, Trump has cemented his legacy: a self-indulgent white supremacist who created a kleptocracy peopled by grifters and sycophants who are now trying to save their own skins. And as the guilty verdicts and plea bargains start to rain down on this administration, America’s infrastructure crisis drops back to its familiar spot far down on the list of national priorities.