“America’s Infrastructure First!” Then-candidate Donald Trump didn’t sound those words quite so often as “Make America Great Again!” but the former line was high among his tools for national overhaul, and people took notice, including—maybe especially—those who build and repair bridges, roads, schools, power grids and the other systems that keep our nation humming.
Which, of course, includes readers of US Builders Review, who wonder what’s next with President Trump at last settled as the 45th occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s the dawning of a new day, but whether it’s really morning for the construction industry remains to be seen. High among the clouds of uncertainty that must lift before any major projects become shovel-ready:
The first 100 days presents its own challenge. All administrations have priorities, and this one put itself under immense pressure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—a process that was thought to have put infrastructure in the waiting room at least until summer. But earlier this week, while still vice president-elect, Mike Pence, doubled down on the matter along with Elaine Chao, nominated to head the Transportation department.
“In addition to urging me to send along greetings, tell them we’re going to do an infrastructure bill—and it’s going to be big,” Pence told the annual gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
But how much money?
The American Society of Civil Engineers says the state of infrastructure is so dire it needs $1.4 trillion over the next decade. While others are skeptical about the objectivity of such a claim, Trump asserts the conditions of roads, bridges, airports et al is a national disgrace.
A big part of his plan is $137 billion in tax credits going to private companies that back the repairs and rebuilds. Those breaks, along with other federal expenditures and higher tax revenues from an anticipated industrial renaissance, add up to $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 10 years, give or take a few billion bucks.
Such a formula brings forth skeptics aplenty from the left and right, with the former alleging corporate welfare and weakening of prevailing wage laws, and the latter wary about adding to the national debt and mulling the costs vs. benefits.
It could take some kind of power of persuasion to get this plan rolling, and that could be another roadblock.
Most presidents enjoy some kind of honeymoon period, but Trump’s approval ratings hover around 40 percent, and Democrats and celebrities alike are staying home for today’s big event.
Still, even as many Democrats walk, others are looking to reconnect with the same people who opted for Trump-Pence. They too have long called for an urban agenda—re: jobs and investment. In a figurative sense, there could be groundwork for bridge-building after all, and that is important to getting anything done.
It was an interesting position paper on infrastructure that Trump put out while campaigning. Ambitious and creative, including public-private partnerships, flexibility to states, streamlined regulations, incentives to hire Americans, a retrenchment from the “Obama-Clinton globalization agenda” and, of course, that $137 billion in tax breaks.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right American Action Forum, tells the Washington Post that much of the plan will only attract investors if generous cash flows can be reaped, and that might include user fees, tolls and even congestion charges—all of which are politically unpopular and even regressive.
Furthermore, Holtz-Eakin would like to see a more specific definition of the very word “infrastructure,” which in the past has been taken to mean everything from bike paths to affordable housing.
The road from here
There are at least a few infrastructure items that indisputably need repair, including the Arlington Memorial Bridge, that neo-classical masterpiece of masonry, stone and steel over the Potomac. Neglected for decades, the Federal Highway Administration called for its overhaul in 2012—when Obama was re-elected—and it still hasn’t happened. It’s closed today for vehicles.
“It’s the absolute poster child for our crumbling infrastructure nationally,” Rep. Don Beyer, the Democrat whose district is on the Virginia side, told Associated Press. “We’re allowing our national capital to crumble before our eyes and the eyes of the whole world. It’s pretty embarrassing.”
Meanwhile, anyone hoping to watch the proceedings from the Washington Monument will be disappointed. The elevator’s been broken since August although another billionaire, Democrat David Rubenstein, CEO of The Carlyle Group, has pledged $3 million to fix it. Just as he paid to repair the structure after a 2011 earthquake.
With such conspicuous problems on their home turf, Congress and the White House may indeed have to put their heads together and even look to what’s happening beyond the congested Beltway. And this president, to his credit, at least has arrived with some semblance of a platform, the points of which should be assessed in a nonpartisan manner.