State of the Union’s Infrastructure

Remember America’s crumbling infrastructure that supposedly needs trillions of dollars for maintenance and rehabilitation? President Trump doesn’t. Instead, the seven sentences in his state of the union speech that focused on infrastructure talked about building “gleaming new” projects rather than fixing existing systems.

The only real news is that he is upping the ante from $1.0 trillion to “at least $1.5 trillion.” More disturbingly, other than mentioning an “infrastructure deficit” — which could just as easily be interpreted to mean a shortage of new infrastructure as a deficit in maintenance — Trump said nothing about fixing existing infrastructure. Instead, he wants to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways.”

Why? We have plenty of railways. Though the railroads have trimmed the nation’s rail mileage by 45 percent since 1916, they move more freight than ever and seem to be quite capable of adding capacity where they need it without government help. High-speed trains, meanwhile, are pointless when we have planes that can go twice as fast and don’t require hundreds of billions of dollars of supporting infrastructure.

Nor do we need more interior waterways. The ones we have are government subsidized and paralleled by railroads that could easily replace them if subsidies ended tomorrow (as they should). Fixing the Jones Act to allow low-cost shipping to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico is more important than adding new waterways in the contigous 48 states.

Our state and interstate highways and bridges are actually in better shape than ever. City and county roads aren’t doing as well and many urban roads are heavily congested, but these are local problems, not federal ones. They are best handled by fixing the system of user fees that should pay for them, such as by Oregon’s experiment with mileage-based user fees (in which I am a participant). More federal funding would only allow the states to delay making those changes.

Finally, our transit systems — especially the most important ones in New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, and the San Francisco Bay Area — are suffering from overspending on gleaming new transit lines and neglect of the existing ones. More new lines will only make that problem worse.

In short, President Trump has fallen for the politician’s fallacy of preferring ribbons over brooms — that is, building new infrastructure rather than maintaining the old. This is underscored by a leaked infrastructure plan that outlines seven different initiatives and programs, none of which is focused on repairing or rehabilitating America’s existing infrastructure.

This country may need some new infrastructure, but mainly it needs to better utilize and take care of the infrastructure it already has. Since politicians seem to be incapable of doing that, and since user-fee-funded infrastructure tends to be far better managed and maintained than politically funded infrastructure, Congress should focus on returning as much infrastructure as possible to funding systems that rely on user fees, not taxes.

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4 thoughts on “State of the Union’s Infrastructure

  1. prk166

    Any word yet if Trump infrastructure plan could be used to build a multi billion dollar LNG facility for Hawaii so they can build some new power plants to power their new Honolulu rail transit?

  2. paul

    I agree with the Antiplanner. However, since Trump policies so far resemble corporate raiders taking over an enterprise, in this case the Federal government, then borrowing as much as possible (the increased deficit); passing as much of this on to themselves as possible (massive permanent tax cuts for the wealthy); I would not trust the Trump administration to do anything in the public interest. I would be very suspicious on any public private partnership for infrastructure as it just mean that it is a public liability that private funding can make money on then abandon the cost to the taxpayer.

  3. LazyReader

    While a LNG terminal for Hawaii would be a good thing for the state, natural gas is still more expensive than coal per megawatt hour. Hawaii imports 90% of the energy it consumes.
    Hawaiian residents have stood massive opposition and protests over any potentially beneficial infrastructure or building. The Hawaiian Superferry, protests. Especially Polynesian hawaiians or even halflings like Jason Mamoa (Aquaman fame). The Thirty Meter Telescope that has 10,000 times greater resolution than the Hubble. Hawaiian’s protested (even though Moana Loa has numerous telescopes already).
    State residents support wind power but when construction sites are chosen, support dwindles. Offshore wind is 5-10 times more expensive than on land and land based wind turbines are spotty at best. Offshore wind would also interfere with defense radar. While the state is blessed with trade winds NIMBYism keeps most wind turbine projects off the shelf for land based wind mills. Solar? It takes 2.5 acres of solar panels to generate one megawatt-hour of juice. And Hawaii’s not as sunny as the brochures admit. Powering the state would cover tens of thousands of acres…….Protest. Hawaiians stood in opposition to more geothermal drilling….. Despite the states dogmatic drive for 100% renewable by 2045, it’s not going to happen. Hawaii consumes 51.5 Trillion BTU’s or 54.3 Petajoules (54,330,000,000,000,000 Joules) of gasoline energy per year or 148 Terajoules per day. That’s 1.7 Gigawatts per day just to replace gasoline. Nuclear power, laughed out of city hall.
    Geothermal power appears to be the only source of energy left for Hawaii. Instead of injecting water down into wells, Carbon dioxide would be the working fluid.
    In 2016, General Electric announced an supercritical CO2-based turbine that operated at 50% efficiency. In it the CO2 is heated to 700 °C. It requires less compression and allows heat transfer. It reaches full power in 2 minutes, whereas steam turbines need at least 30 minutes. The prototype generated 10 MW and is approximately 10% the size of a comparable steam turbine. Work is underway to develop a sCO
    2 closed-cycle gas turbine to operate at temperatures near 550 °C. This would have implications for bulk thermal and nuclear generation of electricity, because the supercritical properties of carbon dioxide at above 500 °C and 20 MPa enable thermal efficiencies approaching 45 percent. This could increase the electrical power produced per unit of fuel required by 40 percent or more. Given the volume of carbon fuels used in producing electricity, the environmental impact of cycle efficiency increases would be significant.

  4. Sandy Teal

    No one is going to start an infrastructure program by talking about fixing old stuff. The real issue will be when the program rolls out and what portion of it is for re-building and whether it builds in a funding for maintenance. What is the economics of private renovation of a highway to be paid off by tolls? You could probably fix a lot of miles of highway and bridges if you could toll them for ten years.

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