In his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump appealed for at least $1.5 trillion in new public and private spending on infrastructure.
“Together,” he said, “we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands and American grit.”
There is no debating the pressing need for upgrades to the U.S. transportation system.
America has invested too little for too long, leaving the country with crumbling roads, buckling bridges, outdated airports and dilapidated transit systems.
Moreover, the cost of rehabilitating aging infrastructure, much less expanding capacity to serve a growing economy, dwarfs even the $1.5 trillion proposed by the president.
And both major parties have been complicit in kicking this can down the road for years.
So Trump’s call for bipartisan cooperation is welcome. But a speechwriter’s words won’t repave roads or reinforce bridges. Delivering a workable infrastructure plan will require a level of engagement that has yet to be seen from this president.
If he’s serious about a bipartisan effort, and even if his only goal is to impress voters in the midterm election, success also is going to require a degree of flexibility that has largely been absent during the first 13 months of the Trump administration.
One likely source of disagreement is the level of federal investment. Trump reportedly plans to offer as little as $200 billion over 10 years, asking state and local governments and the private sector to come up with the other $1.3 trillion. That federal share is a pittance for Washington. The rest is close to the combined annual expenditures of all 50 states.
Another involves cost-sharing. An administration memo leaked to the news website Axios says the federal government would pay no more than 20 percent of any funded project. The feds have historically contributed 50 percent on infrastructure projects.
Trump reportedly will propose funding cuts for Amtrak and other mass transit systems to pay the federal share of his infrastructure plan. One victim here could be SMART, the North Bay’s new commuter rail system, which is having trouble collecting money appropriated during the Obama administration for a planned extension to Larkspur.
Skimming transit funds for other purposes won’t build many “gleaming” railways. Indeed, it’s the transportation equivalent of cutting renewable energy programs while moving to open coastal waters for oil drilling.
To reduce federal spending on transportation, Trump already has proposed turning air traffic control into a fee-based private sector system without explaining why the present system should go. He reportedly will recommend the same for highway rest stops.
All of these issues need to be on the table. Democrats also must be flexible, working, for example, to relax the regulatory obstacles that hold up vital infrastructure projects, if they expect Republicans to give ground on other aspects of an infrastructure plan.
Ordinary Californians may have a role to play here too. With a long list of projects ready to go and a new gas tax for matching funds, the state is positioned to compete for federal money — if voters don’t get fooled by backers of a gas tax referendum who seek to kick the can down the road one more time.