In December 2016, President-elect Trump created an infrastructure priority list titled “Emergency and National Security Projects,” with 50 projects that cover most modes of transportation and other infrastructure. The stated cost was $138 billion, of which 50 percent was projected to come from private investment.
The top five projects were Gateway Program, focused on rebuilding rail infrastructure in the Northeast corridor in New Jersey and New York; Brent Spence Bridge, a critical I-75 connector between Ohio and Kentucky; National Research Labs for Infrastructure, which is a Bell Labs model to develop and commercialize infrastructure technologies; Locks and Dams 52 and 53, to eliminate barge choke points along the Ohio River; and critical highway repairs along I-95 in North Carolina.
Most of the projects listed were going through engineering and permitting processes, meaning they were not “shovel-ready.” Every project would improve public safety or boost the economy, yet we cannot find the national will to act on transportation infrastructure. Why?
On Jan. 31, 2018, a New York Times headline about President Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan called it “light on federal funds and details.” The article summarized his plan: “The increased infrastructure spending would be offset by unspecified budget cuts. … The proposal would effectively leverage at least $6.50 in additional infrastructure spending for every dollar spent by the federal government, a ratio many infrastructure experts consider far-fetched.”
A February 2018 Quinnipiac Poll asked, “Do you support or oppose increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure?” Eighty-seven percent of respondents answered yes, consistent with the previous year.
Supporting spending is only half of the equation. A February 2017 Rasmussen Reports survey found that “52 percent draw the line at paying more, with 19 percent who are willing to pay nothing more in taxes each year and 33 percent who say new costs for upgrading and improving infrastructure should be offset by other spending cuts.”
The dilemma is obvious: Americans want government to spend more on transportation infrastructure but the public does not want to pay more for infrastructure.
Policymakers, elected officials and transportation advocates have failed to capture the public’s imagination to maintain interest in transportation infrastructure over a sustained period of time. Google “transportation infrastructure 2017” and you’ll get 17 million hits, but do the same for “public education 2017” and the number increases to 156 million.
Prioritizing and explaining infrastructure needs obviously is not cutting it. Studies and reports that calculate trillions of dollars in unmet needs mostly are ignored. Rating systems that grade the infrastructure of each state have little sustained impact on driving the conversation forward. Research on the number of structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges is good only for a headline or two.
Shifting financial responsibility to the private sector is not a panacea. Committee hearings at the state and federal level have not led to long-term, comprehensive solutions. The industry that builds and repairs roads and bridges does not see the driving public as customers. And our transportation needs are quickly evolving as technology changes our need for transportation infrastructure.
McKinsey & Company has provided insights on a third issue. Looking at a 10-year time frame, they state: “[T]ransportation in the United States will look far different than it does now.” Departments of Transportation that “focus on older travel models will be unprepared to serve new kinds of demand,” McKinsey forecasts. “They will also be slower to convert growing data sets into actionable plans and projects that further support these changing trends.” Adjusting to these rapid advances, says McKinsey, and providing effective solutions “requires agility and radical innovation. This kind of disruption can challenge the culture of DOTs.”
So we are left with three issues: A growing number of high priority projects that are unfunded; Necessary conversations about transportation infrastructure that cannot be sustained; and Governing agencies that are not prepared to manage a rapidly evolving transportation infrastructure landscape.
President Trump is a problem-solver, but the infrastructure issue is proving to be more daunting than enacting comprehensive tax cuts, slashing regulations, dismantling ObamaCare, or even bringing North Korea to the table for nuclear negotiations. Congress has no appetite for funding infrastructure after cutting taxes, so nothing likely will get done in 2018.
What can Trump do to create an environment in which infrastructure can be successfully addressed before the end of his first term? Create the National Research Labs for Infrastructure and focus on the future. Do what he did as a businessman — create demand.
He must fundamentally refocus the conversation. Talk about what is being developed to expand pedestrian walkways and bikeways and highways that can accommodate electric-powered trucks and photovoltaic driving lanes capable of charging electric vehicles. Engage the public about travel in autonomous vehicles, smart cars and shared rides. Educate about construction materials that make travel safer, and construction methods that allow constructors to deliver projects cheaper, faster and cleaner. Talk about how public transit will evolve, and a future with fully-integrated travel based on smartphone technology. Define government as a facilitator, rather than regulator.
In a period of disruptive change, don’t look backward. Instead, focus on innovation across sectors and the transportation systems we need to build to meet the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that will present themselves in the 21st century.
Dennis M. Powell is founder and president of Massey Powell, a public affairs consultancy headquartered in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. He has consulted nationally on transportation issues and the need to think about transportation differently.