Industry executives may have hoped the recently passed tax law and President Trump’s promises to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure would lead to new superhighways paved with gold. Unfortunately, the most recent attempt to unveil Trump’s infrastructure plan was a stark reminder that the White House’s scandals and unforced errors have repeatedly distracted the nation, thwarting the political momentum needed for passing an infrastructure measure.
Let’s review. The first attempt at “Infrastructure Week” in June 2017 was overshadowed by the unceremoniously fired FBI director, James Comey. His congressional testimony captivated the media and, I imagine, those investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
The second rollout two months later didn’t make it past a press conference, where the president’s disturbing remarks about a white supremacist rally dominated the news. Alas, the third time was not the charm. The Trump administration’s defense of a top aide accused of domestic abuse and irregular security clearance policies pushed infrastructure off the front page again. New reports of the president’s alleged extramarital affairs and an uproar over travel costs by key Trump appointees pushed it to the back page, killing any momentum for congressional action on the president’s meager 51-page “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure.” President Trump’s tepid, “If you don’t want it, that’s OK with me, too,” endorsement to Congress may as well have been a eulogy. Is it any wonder “Infrastructure Week” has become a punch line in the nation’s capital?
Kristina Swallow, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, called the plan “a solid first step in having a real conversation about solutions for the nation’s aging infrastructure.” Whether it is the first or third step, the description seems like a feeble attempt to appease a leader with a history of Twitter-trolling the messenger. The ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card gave the U.S. a D+ and estimated a $2-trillion, 10-year investment gap. Trump’s $1.5 trillion, 10-year plan provides only $200 billion from federal coffers and puts the burden of filling the gap on states, local governments and the private sector. But states may have trouble raising revenue from taxpayers whose deductions were capped by the tax code’s recent changes. And rural communities are bound to lose, since no one expects private corporations, even those flush with cash from reduced federal tax rates, to fund public projects where few profits are to be made.
Cuts to Key Programs
Under the White House’s 2019 budget request, the federal share would be offset by cuts to TIGER grants and the Army Corps of Engineers. The entire funding scheme reminds me of an Atlantic City casino leveraged buyout.
Putting that aside, the administration has proposed revisions aimed at streamlining federal project permitting to two-year maximums. Our industry always welcomes cutting red tape, but some fear the environment will pay the price. Trump’s proposed 34% slash to the Environmental Protection Agency budget adds to concerns.
The Trump plan’s ability to foster infrastructure investment anywhere close to $1.5 trillion is dubious. Democratic votes will be needed to pass it in the Senate, and Democrats have proposed a very different 10-year plan with $1 trillion in federal spending.
While a more balanced approach might have had a better chance in Congress, the real failure must be laid squarely on President Trump’s shoulders. His lack of professionalism has derailed three separate attempts to focus on infrastructure. Trump’s defenders admire his lack of grace; they say he calls it like he sees it. That may be all well and good, but when the president’s professionalism and organizational culture prevent the nation from focusing on the economic sector responsible for our livelihoods, a little less chaos and a lot more competence might throw infrastructure funding a much-needed lifeline. Until then, “Infrastructure Week” will remain a punch line, and in this comedy of errors the joke is on us.
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