Some on Right Worry Trump’s Infrastructure Plan Is a Boondoggle in the Making

Conservatives in Congress, think tank community raise alarms about excessive costs, need for massive public works program

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 14 Feb 2018 at 9:32 AM

President Donald Trump unveiled his plan Monday to fix what the White House describes as the “unacceptable state of disrepair” of the nation’s roads and bridges — but some experts warn it could turn into a costly and unneeded boondoggle to fix a problem that doesn’t really exist.

The administration envisions spending about $200 billion in federal funds that would add up to $1.5 trillion when combined with private investment and tax dollars from state and local governments. But Michael Sargent, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, questioned the premise.

Contrary to population perception, America’s bridges and roads — by and large — are not falling apart, Sargent told LifeZette.

“When you look at the data, our major assets are actually in good shape,” he said.

The National Highway Administration reports that 56,007 bridges in 2016 carried a rating of "structurally deficient," down from 124,072 in 1992. Sargent said the story is the same with America's highways.

Most of the roads in poor shape are local roads with which the federal government traditionally has little involvement, Sargent said.

In a symbolic move to support the initiative, Trump donated his fourth-quarter salary to the Department of Transportation. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who accepted the check in front of the White House press corps, tried to sell the plan by arguing that it promotes maximum flexibility.

"A key element is to empower decision-making at the state and the local level, because state and local officials know best the infrastructure needs of their communities," she said.

Democrats immediately pounced on the plan, calling the direct federal spending inadequate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) had the opposite reaction, noting on "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Tuesday that annual deficits already are projected to rise to levels not seen since the aftermath of the Great Recession.

"We do have needs in this country … But if you're just gonna add it to the debt, I'm not gonna be for adding it to the debt."

"I don't know where they're going to get a couple hundred billion dollars more," he said. "We do have needs in this country … But if you're just gonna add it to the debt, I'm not gonna be for adding it to the debt."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) took to the Senate floor Monday to deride "Trump's tolls," a reference to the plan's call to allow local officials to raise revenue through tolls. Chao said Tuesday the administration is not endorsing or pushing tolls, merely allowing them as an option.

Sargent said it is important to understand that roads, bridges and other projects must be paid for one way or another.

"People need to start recognizing that this stuff is not free," he said.

Rick Geddes, a Cornell University professor and former member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, said the White House outline appropriately stresses local decision-making and prioritizes the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

"I don't think we need a new massive spending bill that would encourage construction of a lot of new bridges and highways," he told LifeZette.

Geddes and other experts said how they get built is just as important as the nature of the projects. Sargent pointed to the proposal to streamline the permitting and environmental review process.

"A lot of what we see in the proposal is pretty good," he said. "It's definitely necessary to start asking why it takes years to get approval."

Geddes said the proposal also calls for eliminating or reducing barriers to experimentation. As an example, he pointed to a section of the law creating the interstate highway system in the 1950s that restricts the ability of states to commercialize rest stops. That is the reason why rest stops on interstate highways have bathrooms, tourist brochures, vending machines, and little else.

"The code no longer makes any sense," he said.

Related: Trump's Budget Will Focus on National Debt, Not the Annual Deficit

As a model of what might be, Geddes pointed to Maryland House and Chesapeake House, a pair of rest stops along Interstate 95 in Maryland that feature stores, gas and restaurants. Maryland was able build those facilities because the 1950s-era law grandfathered in highways that had tolls, as Maryland once had on I-95.

Under Trump's plan, states could seek exemptions to contract with private companies to build and maintain such facilities, with a requirement that the tax revenue generated be plowed into the maintenance costs of the sections of highway that the rest stops serve.

That is one of a number of public-private partnerships that could generate large sums of money for new projects, Geddes said. He said it is modeled after a program in Australia that generated about $4 of private investment for every dollar put up by the federal government.

"My best guess is that we're 20 years behind every other developed country," he said.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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