For Congress and President Donald Trump, the path to health care reform has proven impassable. If they want a win, they’d be wise to shift their energy to what is perhaps the most unifying topic in American politics, the need for the United States to properly fund and execute the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure. Republican and Democratic politicians say they support it. Conservative and liberal voters know we need it.
Thousands of the roads, bridges, railways, water systems, airports, harbors, dams and tunnels in the greatest nation in world are crumbling. Many other critically needed projects have never moved beyond the drawing boards and wish lists.
In his presidential campaign, Trump promised to change that. Lauding his experience as a developer, he promised he could build faster, cheaper and better than anyone else. He promised to spend $1 trillion to get workers bustling on construction sites and factories humming on the material orders to supply those sites. And it was, of all his promises, the most important, the most necessary and the most universally popular.
He mentioned it on election night and said in his first speech to Congress in February it would create millions of jobs.
In a March CNN/ORC poll, 79 percent of Americans supported more spending to improve infrastructure. It’s one area in which Democrats were willing to work with Trump on Day One. And a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would take $3.6 trillion by 2020 to build and fix the nation’s public works.
But Trump hasn’t even delivered a plan yet. His ballyhooed Infrastructure Week came. And went. There wasn’t much to it. We must demand more.
Trump promised a week of focus, plans and initiatives. Instead, he recycled an old congressional plan to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system, an idea worth considering. The rest was fuzzy talk about public-private partnerships and a six-page fact sheet that noted $200 billion in federal spending over the next decade.
Part of the problem seemed to be the inability of Trump to let go of the political intrigues popping up each day, the feuds and fights and Twitter wars, to focus on this issue. But most of the problem was that he had no actual infrastructure plan to promote. Trump has not provided his singular vision, nor has he surrounded himself with the kind of skilled professionals who can do it for him.
Infrastructure spending is particularly crucial in the metropolitan area, and the need for the $1 trillion blueprint became even clearer in May, when the 10-year budget Trump released sought to devastate the traditional financing for such projects. The plan would eliminate $760 million in Amtrak funding in the next decade, even as deteriorating rails and bridges threaten the economic health of the Northeast corridor, and as Penn Station becomes increasingly crippled by disrepair and increased use. The budget would cut proposed spending from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which has been dangerously low for years, by another $96 billion in the next 10 years.
But worst of all for New York, Trump’s budget would eliminate the New Starts infrastructure grant program over the next decade. About $2 billion of the $6 billion price tag to further extend the Second Avenue subway line, from 96th Street up to 125th Street, was earmarked to come from New Starts. So was half the estimated $23 billion cost of the Hudson River Gateway train tunnel, with New Jersey and New York paying the other half. Both projects are absolute necessities.
And it’s not just those kinds of projects that Trump and his team have said their infrastructure plan would provide. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has said the plan would also focus improving water quality, funding that’s desperately needed on Long Island. And she said the plan would address veterans hospitals, another huge issue here because the Northport facility so many veterans depend on needs an estimated $279 million in renovations.
The financing is as easy as the politics on this initiative to rebuild our nation. Trump, whose main skill for decades has been borrowing money, understands better than anyone how cheap issuing bonds to rebuild the nation would be right now. A few dozen ultraconservative members of Congress from his party would reject this, but hundreds of Democrats would embrace it. He wouldn’t need to pay private investors huge returns on their capital for building money when he could get it for a fraction of the cost in the debt markets. But he would need to replicate private-market concepts that repay the debt with tolls and other dedicated revenue sources, so that new funds keep flowing for building and repairs.
This is how to make America great again. How to create great jobs again. How Trump can pull his administration out of its tailspin of operational ineffectiveness by getting something done. Prioritize some projects, set plans, gather bipartisan support and move forward.
Trump needs to make every week Infrastructure Week until he gets it right.