clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What Donald Trump needs to do to fix America’s infrastructure

“The thing you need, first and foremost, is money.”

Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Charleston, WV Mark Lyons/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

President Donald Trump promised a $1 trillion plan within the first 100 days of his presidency to rebuild the country’s “crumbling infrastructure.” That deadline passed without a proposal.

The next attempts to focus on infrastructure suffered from either horrible timing, chaos of the president’s own making, or both. “Infrastructure Week” in June, for example, coincided with former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate committee testimony.

But Axios published a leaked document this week that reportedly contained the outlines of the White House’s infrastructure proposal. The plan emphasizes federal grants to pay for portions of projects, with some combination of state, local, and private funding making up the difference. It also includes a program to spur rural infrastructure development.

The leaked document didn’t include any numbers, but multiple reports have suggested the administration will ask for $200 billion in grants over 10 years, attempting to leverage close to $1 trillion in total spending.

The question now is whether this plan — if it’s indeed the final plan — will effectively tackle America’s gaping infrastructure challenges.

Before the proposal leaked, Vox asked infrastructure experts and analysts to lay out what the federal government should prioritize in any major plan to adequately and cost-effectively upgrade, repair, and replace America’s infrastructure.

It’s a bit premature to say whether Trump’s strategy will accomplish this, particularly without any final numbers. But if the leaked documented is any indication, the majority of the federal money will come in the form of limited grants, putting more emphasis on local, state, and private entities to foot the bill.

The federal government’s role in infrastructure is already scaled back, and some experts acknowledged this may be the new normal moving forward — with or without a Trumpian plan.

Still, if the US government is going to invest in critical infrastructure, how and where the federal government spends the billions it’s willing to spare counts even more. Early reports on Trump’s proposal suggest that investment will fall short of what’s needed. But it may not be a done deal yet.

Below are transcripts of our interviews with experts, edited and condensed.

Debra Knopman, principal researcher at the RAND Corporation

It is singularly unhelpful to say everything is falling apart and then just advocate for spending a lot of money on a lot of different things — and then not actually solve any problems.

The fixing of the Highway Trust Fund is top of the list. The fuel tax has not been raised since 1993, and the squeeze is put on the states and their transportation budges. They depend on the flow of those scheduled dollars to maintain the interstate highway system and other prime routes.

Simply raising the gas tax alone is not a sustainable solution, though it’s certainly a short-term one. We have more and more vehicles on the road that are much more fuel-efficient, so they’re paying less than individuals used to. More hybrid vehicles, and eventually, we’ll have more electric vehicles.

One of the things that could be done is a substantial ramping up of experiments at the state level. The federal government could get much more serious about encouraging experiments at the state level on ways to move toward a vehicle-miles-traveled fee, or some alternative approach.

I’d also want to put a marker down on cross-jurisdictional projects. The Gateway tunnel project between New York and New Jersey — that’s an example. The Port of Long Beach, a lot of congestion there. There are other examples of bottlenecks that could substantially improve movement of goods. These [are[ places of national economic significance, and there is a case to be made for trying to really fix the kinks in our transportation networks.

Another top priority is to work with cities of all sizes — not just large cities — that are coping with upgrading their deteriorated or undersized stormwater management systems. When it rains a lot, or snows and then melts, that water has to go somewhere. In many cities, it goes into the drainage system, which then runs into the sewage system, and the sewage systems get overrun. There has been federal money going into this area, but much more is needed, and there is a very close tie-in between this problem and disaster assistance.

A report just came out from NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] noting that the US had spent, in 2017, over $300 billion on disaster events, which is an annual record. This is from water. It’s from too much water in the wrong places. There has certainly been wind damage, and there [are] certainly fires, and there are other things — but a good bit of those has to do with extreme precipitation events. Cities all over the country, large and small, coastal and inland, are coping with this.

Joseph Kane, senior research associate at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program

Any federal infrastructure strategy ideally would touch on multiple sectors of infrastructure. Priority areas for the country’s infrastructure also need to be broader than just mega projects in a select few places.

And not just transportation, although that’s the most visible challenge nationally, but a lot of invisible infrastructure, particularly water infrastructure, is also a significant concern. Our water systems are at a physical age now — some utilities are more than a century old — that there really is no more time to wait. A lot of places are at a breaking point.

Beyond that, there’s a need to acknowledge we’re in an era of repair and replacement compared to the middle of the 20th century, when the Eisenhower administration launched the interstate highway era. Today, a lot of states and localities are dealing with assets that are at the end of their “useful life,” as a lot of engineers like to call it.

Politically speaking, it’s a lot more appetizing to have a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a brand new stretch of roadway, but for many places, most of the costs tend to fall in terms of operation and maintenance. And it’s the localities that are having to bear a lot of those costs.

If there is going to be a reliance on local infrastructure spending, or incentivizing localities to spend more on infrastructure — and this relates a bit to the administration’s potential plan — there needs to be an acknowledgment of local fiscal challenges. Places like Los Angeles or Seattle or San Francisco, which are, economically speaking, performing quite well, have growing populations, are seeing increases in general revenues, are quite different than if you look at a Flint or even a Detroit or a Youngstown.

So there needs some reconciliation or acknowledgment — in my view, anyway — that the financial concerns can be quite different from place to place. Even if [the plan calls for] $200 billion, a figure that’s been cited quite a lot, that’s not a lot in the grand scheme of things compared to the size of the challenges here. And it’s not simply an issue of more money — it’s an issue of targeted support.

Jacob Leibenluft, senior adviser at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The thing you need, first and foremost, is money. I say that because we haven’t seen a proposal from the president since he started talking about a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative on the campaign. In fact, if you look at the president’s budget from last year, it actually would reduce the amount of federal spending on infrastructure over the long run.

You see a lot of talk about “$200 billion that can support $1 trillion in spending,” which is a way to avoid the fundamental challenge. You can’t do this on the cheap. That’s partially because of the magnitude of the problem. The universe of projects that offer the possibility of profit for private investors is considerably smaller than the universe of projects that represent our infrastructure needs.

But that’s also because while there are some projects out there that might be able to spur private investment, a lot of infrastructure projects are needed in places where they’re not necessarily going to be profitable for private entities — or making them profitable for private entities would be bad for the people who want to use it. This ends up being a math problem.

A Republican Party that is convinced all new spending is a bad thing is not going to be particularly capable [of designing] an infrastructure approach that actually gets at our needs. Ultimately, you have to accept you’re going to have higher federal outlays if you want to get the projects you’re looking for.

Michele Nellenbach, director of strategic initiatives at the Bipartisan Policy Center

Everyone, when they’re thinking of infrastructure, they’re thinking of roads and bridges. But it’s also all of our drinking water and wastewater systems, it’s energy, it’s airports, it’s all of it. It’s comprehensive.

To address a $3 trillion need, we need every possible funding and finance tool on the table — which includes both state and local incentives that the president said would be in his proposal. It should include some incentives for the private sector to invest, and there’s a number of tools already in existence at the federal level that we’d like to see maintained.

The final thing I would say is [an infrastructure plan needs] something specifically targeted to rural communities. They have very unique needs, and they’re going to need a lot of technical assistance and technical development — helping getting applications in, helping them identify sources of funding. They cannot compete on the same level as your large cities for federal and state funding, so we’ve got to tailor whatever assistance we’re providing to them.

Henry Petroski, professor of engineering and history at Duke University and author of The Road Not Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure

I’m a roads-and-bridges guy, so I think roads and bridges are important. They’re the most visible space of infrastructure in many ways, and it’s no secret there’s a lot of room for improvement. Especially if you travel and go to Europe and see what is possible. It’s not only a shame but an embarrassment what certain areas of the country are like here in the US. Roads and bridges, that’s my vote.

Rick Geddes, professor and director of the Cornell University program in infrastructure policy

The major overarching theme of an infrastructure bill right now — which I don’t think enough people appreciate — is a shift from a set of policies focused on the design and construction of building out large new systems to one focused on getting the most value we can out of the existing network.

That means a set of policies that will incentivize and fund proper operation and maintenance in the systems that we have, and building them out where it makes sense — adding sections to the interstate, building new water systems where there’s development. It also might involve contracting some systems where there’s no longer demand for those services. That is a massive change in policy.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some incentives generated at the federal level to encourage state and locals to think in a more entrepreneurial fashion about how to get the most value out of the assets they already have -— and, to some extent, get different sectors to talk to each other. I’ve discovered the highway people don’t talk much to the water people, and they don’t talk much to the energy people. I think the “portfolio approach,” where a state or a city would look at a portfolio of infrastructure assets they have and get together and say, “How can we work together most efficiently to operate and maintain these things?” would help a lot.

Brian Pallasch, managing director of government relations and infrastructure initiative for the American Society of Civil Engineers

If you’re going to make these kinds of investments at the type of spending levels that the president’s talking about, we need to ensure that these investments are doing a combination of two things at the outset.

One is improving public safety. We know there are things we can do that will make bridges better, or improve the safety of dams. Roadway safety, things like that. Combine that with this idea that we also want to improve the economy. From an economic standpoint, when we think of infrastructure, it’s really about improving the flow of goods and people. Not investing in our infrastructure actually has a detriment to the economy.

We also need to look a little bit more broadly at the long term of these projects. It’s a little bit engineery and wonky, but we want to ensure these projects are being designed and built to last for a longer period of time — but also, if we can do so, lessen the operations and maintenance costs of these projects or the structures.

What we have found is state and local governments, who are, generally speaking, the ones on the hook for operations and maintenance, don’t always have enough money for those categories in their budget.

So if we can do things upfront as we’re designing and constructing a project to lessen those operation and maintenance costs, whether by choice of materials or the way we’re going to build something, there’s things that smart engineers do that take that into account.

We also need to build our infrastructure to be more resilient, to be able to withstand extreme weather. It’s not always going to be perfect, as we know, but to be able to have that infrastructure come back online as quickly as possible.

I think we’ve also seen a number of things recently where the interdependence of infrastructure systems causes problems. In some of those storms, you knock the power out, which means water treatment facilities or even gas stations can’t function, and if a gas station doesn’t function, then how do you get — if you’re just a regular old consumer and you actually have a generator — how do you get gasoline for your generator if the gas station doesn’t have power and gas pumps don’t work?

That interdependence of the infrastructure and making it more resilient should be a part of any discussion that we have when it comes to rebuilding our infrastructure.

The federal government needs to be, we feel strongly, a better partner in infrastructure. I would posit the theory that over the last generation, we’ve really, at all levels of government, taken a bit of a generational vacation from investing in our infrastructure in the proper way.

I think state and local governments have woken up to this, and we’ve seen that over the last three to five years where states are doing things to spend more money on their infrastructure. The federal government remains behind on that.