March 17, 2018, 21:02

America’s 3 infrastructure problems

America’s 3 infrastructure problems

Can we stop saying Donald Trump has a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan? He doesn’t. He has a $200 billion infrastructure plan — and even that lacks any details about how it’ll be paid for, though the White House promises it will be.

So where did that $1.5 trillion number come from? According to the White House, the other $1.3 trillion will be kicked in by states and private investors who can get a subsidy from the feds for financing the bulk of new projects. (The Trump administration will take on 20 percent of a project’s cost if states foot the bill for the other 80 percent, and they’re offering financing help for private investors.)

And even if you believe the size of the administration’s infrastructure plan is properly expressed in terms of how much they’re hoping other people spend along with it, “their assumptions are about as rosy as rosy can get,” says Marc Scribner, an infrastructure expert at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.

But what the Trump administration giveth, the Trump administration more than taketh away. Alongside Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure plan is his 2019 budget proposal which includes — wait for it — hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts to other categories of infrastructure spending.

“You’re talking about a net cut to federal infrastructure potentially on the order of $50 to $60 billion,” says Jacob Leibenluft, of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And that’s on top of other cuts to state and local funding that would squeeze state budgets and make it harder for them to fund their own infrastructure programs.

The White House’s $1.5 trillion number, which much of the media uncritically parroted, is not the only way the infrastructure debate is confused, and confusing. On the left and the right, it’s dogma that America’s infrastructure is crumbling, that investment is needed to build our economic future, that the emergency is upon us. But what, precisely, is the nature of this emergency? What kind of investment is needed?

America has many infrastructure problems, not just one

It’s useful to cut America’s infrastructure needs into three categories: existing infrastructure, future infrastructure, and, overlapping with both categories, how America builds infrastructure. Let’s take them in turn.

When people talk about “crumbling” infrastructure, they’re talking about existing infrastructure —bridges that have already been built, roads that have already been laid, airports that are already in operation.

The need here is maintenance, and maintenance is difficult for a few reasons. First, politicians don’t prioritize maintenance, because while you can put your name on a bridge or attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a road, few cheer for the beams you quietly reinforce or the potholes you fill.

Second, the federal government gives states a lot of money to build new highways but is not quite so excited about funding their long-term maintenance. (Not to mention the Highway Trust Fund is going broke, which Trump’s budget simply accepts.)

Third, maintenance disrupts traffic and flights and subway schedules and water delivery, so constituents are often actively angry at you while it’s happening. But if you want to fortify America’s “crumbling” infrastructure, you have to solve the unsexy problem of maintaining the infrastructure we have.

Future infrastructure is what politicians like to talk about. High-speed rail, new highways, smart electrical grids, rural broadband, gleaming airports. Everyone gets dewy-eyed imagining the infrastructure of tomorrow.

One problem here is big infrastructure investments are costly and require long-term funding commitments. The other problem is that Congress’s main legislative vehicle for improving infrastructure is surface transportation bills that push investment towards building more highways that we usually don’t need. This is the kind of challenge that makes people’s eyes glaze over when you talk about it, but Congress looks at infrastructure through a decades-old lens designed around the need for a national highway system and that distorts the decisions they make today.

Then there’s the question of how we decide what infrastructure to build, and how much it costs to build it. Infrastructure investment is often used to pay off constituencies rather than meet national needs. Trump’s plan, for instance, sets 25 percent of its funding aside for rural infrastructure, even though far less than 25 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

But this is a problem that reaches far beyond Trump. New York’s Second Avenue Subway looks like it will be the most expensive subway project in the world per-kilometer of track. (The New York Times has had a great series showing why.) Transportation analyst Alon Levy has surveyed the cost of modern subway projects across Europe and found that, far from the billion-plus New York is paying per kilometer, $100 to $300 million per kilometer is standard. And it’s not as if France doesn’t have unions, or London doesn’t have density, or Italy doesn’t have political corruption.

How Trump’s plan stacks up

The Trump administration’s infrastructure plan doesn’t solve the problems of maintenance or building efficiency. (And, to be fair, a substantial portion of those problems is on state and local governments to solve, though the federal government could do a lot more to help.)

But what surprises me about his plan is how little it actually says about what kind of new infrastructure Trump wants to construct. This is a man who made his fortune putting his name on buildings, a politician who proclaimed himself “the builder president.” And what he’s come up with is a wan matching program for states?

”None of these programs include a point of view,” writes Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, in an analysis of Trump’s proposal. “Compared to the grand programs of our past—the New Deal’s pursuit of electrical and telephone expansions; the national interstate highway system; water investments in the 1970s—there is no statement about what kind of economy we should build.”

There is much within the purview of the presidency that Trump is clearly not interested in. But Trump spent much of his life in the building trades, and whatever else you want to say about his career, it was marked by a genuine ambition, an audacity in the projects he chose and the quantities of (often other people’s) money he threw at them.

When Trump speaks of America’s infrastructure problems, he does so with real passion, you can hear the disappointment in his voice. Where was that president when this proposal was being designed?

Podcast: Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matt Yglesias talk infrastructure


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