Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: Trump’s proposal to save roads fails to make inroads

By
Opinions Editor
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

As any driver in Rhode Island can tell you, infrastructure in our country has certainly seen better days. And while the potholes around Providence are a hassle, they don’t begin to capture the full scope of the United States’ infrastructure problem. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers — which evaluates American infrastructure annually across 16 categories, including the quality of bridges, dams, hazardous waste disposal and inland waterway transport — American infrastructure overall has a composite score of D+.  To those of us who drive, take public transport, use electricity or drink water, this should be profoundly disturbing. And while policy experts and engineers have been ringing the alarm bells for years, our federal political institutions have done little to translate these recommendations into policy. Previous efforts by the Obama administration, for example, were blocked by congressional Republicans, who at that time were still willing to sacrifice crucial public goods on the altar of “fiscal conservatism.”

Yet there has been renewed interest in addressing the infrastructure crisis these past few months. President Trump has informally proposed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure project and many congressional Republicans seem on board. “Finally, serious government action!” says the armchair infrastructure enthusiast. Alas, it isn’t so. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the president’s proposed plan would not effectively solve our most pressing infrastructure issues. Rather, like the sweeping tax legislation before it, Trump’s infrastructure plan is designed to appear like it is solving some pressing policy issue while in reality, it is a way to further enrich special interests.

For starters, Trump’s proposal does not allocate adequate funding to truly resolve the infrastructure crisis. In fact, the plan doesn’t even begin to approach the amount of investment necessary to bring our infrastructure back to a satisfactory state. According to the ASCE, $4.59 trillion would be required to bring our composite infrastructure score from a D+ to a B. While Democrats, for their part, have not proposed such an ambitious spending package either, the White House’s plan does not solve the issue it sets out to solve.

What’s more, the plan’s methods for repairing our infrastructure are ineffective. The proposal, touted as a $1.5 trillion investment in public infrastructure, in reality only seeks to allocate $200 billion in federal spending. State and local governments are expected to match federal spending by a four-to-one ratio, according to CNN. If state and local governments were capable of allocating so much money toward infrastructure projects in the first place, it is unlikely their roads and bridges would have been languishing for as long as they have been. Placing the bulk of the spending burden on state and local governments, then, is not an effective approach to resolving this issue.

Yet these are all questions of policy that could be resolved if those proposing the plan were acting in good faith. Unfortunately, the most troubling aspect of the plan demonstrates that policymakers in the White House are not bona fide supporters of our nation’s infrastructure. The plan crucially proposes that infrastructure funding would take the form of private projects subsidized via tax credits, as opposed to projects directly managed and funded by the government. While this arrangement may be desirable in some situations, it is certainly not an effective way to repair infrastructure nationally. This is because private firms lack the incentive to repair infrastructure in many of the areas that most desperately need it. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “(private investment) would not deliver many of the most important needed projects for roads and bridges, public transit, schools and public housing…” Without some way of ensuring these companies focus on projects in areas where they are most needed, rather than where they are most profitable, the plan will not only fail to repair most of our nation’s most seriously wanting infrastructure but will hasten an infrastructure gap between different parts of the country. And, unsurprisingly, the plan, according to the CBPP, will simply benefit these private construction companies, which “would own the projects, get huge federal tax credits equal to a stunning 82 percent of their equity investment and make profits from the tolls or fees they would charge to consumers.”

Our nation is seriously in need of major public investment in our infrastructure. Aside from serving as a reminder that the world’s richest country is run by a government so dysfunctional that it is willing to let its infrastructure languish in disrepair for decades, the sorry state of our roads and bridges is also costly and dangerous. President Trump has an opportunity here: Many Democrats have expressed a willingness to work with him on infrastructure, according to the Washington Post, and Republicans seem to have suspended their aversion to deficits. Many voters have expressed widespread support for a sweeping infrastructure plan, according to a CNN poll. There is perhaps no easier political win for a president that is in desperate need of one before this year’s midterm season. But, to the disappointment of armchair infrastructure enthusiasts everywhere, Trump and his administration will very likely squander the opportunity. Instead, we can look forward to a polarizing bill that merely rewards large corporations, neglecting our roads and bridges for the foreseeable future.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at connor_cardoso@brown.edu. Please send  responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.