The Trump administration has declared this to be “infrastructure week,” with President Trump and Elaine Chao partaking in a traveling road show to sell the administration’s ideas. Some people say that this is just a way to take the nation’s eyes off of the Comey hearings, and if so, it’s working as a lot of electrons and not a little ink are being devoted to infrastructure.
Others are claiming that Trump doesn’t actually have an infrastructure plan, but that’s not true, as the Antiplanner revealed last week. The plan isn’t 1,000 pages long, but it contains seventeen distinct proposals that have all been fleshed out in other places, including a variety of studies from Heritage, Reason, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and yes even Cato.
What really aggravates some people, especially Democrats, is that Trump isn’t proposing to spend a trillion federal dollars on hundreds of juicy pork barrel projects. Instead, he is proposing to leverage about $200 million in federal tax credits and other incentives to get the private sector to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure.
Democrats claim that the Trump plan is a “just a private money-making operation for the big business buddies of the president.” And what would you call spending $250 million a year on 8-mph streetcars? Or $4 billion a year on 20-mph light rail? Or $70 billion on California high-speed rail that won’t actually run at high speeds? Oh right, those construction projects are private money-making operations for big business buddies of Democrats, so that makes them alright. Somehow, spending $200 billion federal dollars is supposed to be morally reprehensible while spending $1 trillion is not.
There are good reasons why we don’t need to spend more federal dollars on infrastructure. First, the infrastructure crisis is way overblown. Yes, some infrastructure is in bad shape, but in general state highways, water systems, electrical systems, and other infrastructure that is paid for out of user fees is in good shape. Some people want to politicize infrastructure that is still funded out of user fees, but the Trump plan avoids that mistake.
Second, the reason infrastructure that is paid for out of tax dollars is in bad shape is because politicians prefer to spend money on construction of grandiose monuments while contributing very little to maintenance. Spending more federal dollars on infrastructure would only make the problems worse, so the fact that the Trump plan doesn’t propose to do that is a good thing.
Third, since most real infrastructure problems involve things that are not paid for out of user fees, the solution is to figure out better user fees and better incentives. That’s one of the things the Trump plan does: from air traffic control to highways to transit to water, the point is to create better incentives, usually through user fees.
Fourth, most infrastructure really isn’t a federal problem. Why should federal taxpayers pay to build a light-rail line in Salt Lake City, a busway in Indianapolis, or a streetcar in Fort Lauderdale? Another big part of Trump’s plan is to transfer these responsibilities to local governments. Naturally, local politicians eager for “free” federal money hate that idea.
It’s not really Trump’s fault if he takes advantage of the media’s focus on celebrities rather than substance. Thus, posting a fairly detailed plan to reform air traffic control and another plan to reform infrastructure funding on the Office of Management and Budget web site garners almost no media attention. But Trump giving a speech on air traffic control or Elaine Chao giving a speech on reforming environmental regulation (which was part of the infrastructure plan) or the two of them flying to Cincinnati to talk about reforming inland waterway management (ditto) generates headlines, not to mention a backlash from Democrats who are committed to being against anything Trump is for.
Those who expected to see one big fat infrastructure bill are bound to be disappointed because infrastructure is really many different problems and each demands its own solution. Of course, for some politicians the only solution to any problem is to throw other peoples’ money at it. Fortunately, the current administration doesn’t agree.