President Trump has rightly pointed out that America’s crumbling infrastructure needs a revitalization. For anyone who has traveled abroad in recent years you’ll note the train stations, the airports the superhighways, the bridges of the western world, the gulf states and even some developing nations put the US to shame. Trump said all of the right things while campaigning for President in 2015 and 2016 about these issues but has thus far completely dropped the ball once in the Oval Office.
What has the President proposed? A massive public works plan on the scale of FDR’s? An ambitious revitalization for our cities using infrastructure along the lines of Robert Moses’ work in Trump’s hometown, New York City? An effort to call Americans to arms about the defects in our transportation system and an effort to stimulate growth in railways and alternative forms of transit? Nope…
Instead, Trump has proposed cuts to the Department of Transportation, privatization of the Air Traffic Controllers and lots and lots of money for new roads (taking a page out of Rick Scott’s Florida playbook). Even that road money, once the mother’s milk of pork barrel politics in the era of Democratic dominance of Congress (1932-1994) and something that tempted Republicans in control from 1994 to 2006 now isn’t terribly appealing to many who could face challenges from tea party conservatives or are newer members themselves. Since regaining control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, the GOP has been less generous with highway funding than they were in the 1994-2006 time period as the old barons of appropriations faded away and were replaced by true-believer conservative GOPers.
The spending on transportation currently at the federal level is the lowest in 60 years in real dollars – Trump’s proposed increases which might never see the light of day are a drop in the bucket when compared to the overall need. Moreover, Trump appears inclined towards seeking private solution eventually for maintenance of roads, something that never works. The potential profit margins are so minimal for highways and other roads that finding truly competitive bids for maintenance is difficult and with the proposed cuts in the DOT budget, government efforts to maintain highways will be curtailed at the federal level, shifting an already great burden even further toward the states.
Privatizing Air Traffic Control is a borderline dangerous idea – not because it hasn’t worked elsewhere. It has in fact worked in several industrial nations. But because the US unlike some of the places it’s worked (Canada and the UK for example) is far more dependent on air travel than train travel – The UK for instance has such an evolved internal transport network that is not dependent on air travel, that eventual privaitzation of both airport and air traffic control was reasonable. But the US thanks to conservatives won’t make that investment in rail travel or mass transit. It’s also worth noting in Europe, most airports are privately held including London’s Heathrow Airport, the world’s second busiest for international travel. In the US, airports are almost all in the public sphere mostly controlled by municipalities, counties or special taxing districts. Managing/marrying public infrastructure, with private air traffic control might a fatal mistake particularly when you consider the US currently has the safest air traffic system in the world bar none.
As far as highway spending, Trump’s specific plans and ideas aren’t know beyond his budget request. For years, Florida being a geographically isolated state and one that is constantly growing has been shortchanged federal traffic funding. While smaller states have benefited from expansions in the interstate highway system to build expressways and roads through their states because they connect two distant places, Florida has been dependent on special taxing districts or Florida Turnpike Enterprise funded and maintained toll roads to offset this imbalance. Recently, stimulus money during President Obama’s first term had be used to revive a critical road link, SR 9B in Jacksonville’s system of expressways. When the road is complete (it’s already open from I-95 near the Duval-St John’s line to the I-295 Eastern Beltway) it should be signed Interstate 795.
Governor Rick Scott has been a big fan of highway funding as it rewards political cronies while also keeping greater calls for mass transit and High Speed Rail at bay. Trump seems to have the same strategy. Like Scott, Trump sees highways as a need that can be met with public-private partnerships. Like in Florida, when we’ve put roads up for bid, it’s likely without some public component or guarantee of profits few in private industry will engage.
Trump talked a great game about transportation and infrastructure. It was probably the most endearing trait he had during a campaign that was otherwise filled with buffoonery and demagoguery. But he’s let down everyone with his half-hearted plans which do little if anything to address the areas he did accurately articulate needed fixing in 2016. For those of us in Florida, already saddled with a bad transport system and infrastructure behind the times and stretched to its maximum capacities, Trump’s “plans” are bad news indeed.