President Donald Trump on Wednesday laid out his vision for overhauling the nation’s infrastructure, including upgrading inland waterways that are crucial to commerce.
Speaking in Cincinnati, Trump called for upgrading crumbling levees, dams, locks and ports that would be funded through a mixture of public spending, loans and grants. He also said infrastructure projects could be dramatically accelerated by reducing the time required to obtain a permit.
Overall, Trump argued, the onus should be on states, cities and corporations ― and not the federal government ― to fund new infrastructure projects.
“It’s time to recapture our legacy as a nation of builders and create new lanes of travel and commerce,” Trump said at an event on the banks of the Ohio River.
“The theft of American prosperity has come to a screeching halt, folks, and a new era of American greatness is about to begin,” he added, promising to bring back America’s coal and steel industries that use inland waterways to move their commodities across the country.
The president did not, however, offer any additional details about his promised infrastructure plan. His transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, told members of Congress on Wednesday it would be released “hopefully soon,” possibly in the third quarter of the year.
Trump said in his address to a joint session of Congress in February that “he would ask Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure of the United States ― financed through both public and private capital.” That sounds a bit like the president is proposing to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure, but he isn’t. When Trump says “produces a $1 trillion investment,” he in fact is referring to a $200 billion budget proposal that is mainly tax breaks to private corporations that would build ― and own ― public infrastructure.
In other words, it’s the same as the proposal released during the campaign by Wilbur Ross, now Trump’s commerce secretary, and Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who now heads up Trump’s National Trade Council. That proposal called for an 82 percent tax credit on private equity invested in infrastructure.
There are two key benefits when the government spends money on roads, trains, bridges, schools and pipes: Americans get the built backbone they need, and the economy gets a boost because people are put to work.
Tax credits for private companies to build public works largely fail to provide either of those benefits. The economy doesn’t really get a true stimulus, because the tax credits simply go toward making projects that companies were already willing to do more profitable for those companies. And that deficiency is related to the second key failure of infrastructure privatization: Not everything that needs to get built gets built. For instance, a private company is not going to take on the challenge of removing lead pipes in Flint, Michigan, or countless other cities across America. That’s a project that needs to happen ― more than three years after the lead crisis began, residents still don’t have access to drinkable water from their taps ― but outsourcing the responsibility to a private company isn’t going to get it done.
The private sector can help accelerate completion of infrastructure projects. But most Democrats say funding vehicles such as public-private partnerships cannot adequately address the problem.
“It’s not the hamburger, but it can be the ketchup,” said Anthony Foxx, who served as transportation secretary during the Obama administration. “It helps for sure, but it’s not going to be the meat of where were are today in solving infrastructure problems.”
Trump’s speech was part of a weeklong promotion of Trump’s infrastructure proposals, which the White House dubbed “Infrastructure Week” on Monday. The event in Ohio, however, was eclipsed before Trump even finished speaking by another major development in the ongoing Russia investigation ― text of former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate testimony ― giving ammo to critics who say the president’s focus on infrastructure this week was an attempt at misdirection ahead of Comey’s testimony on Thursday.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) even took a dig at the administration on Twitter.
Progressives in Congress have proposed their own $2 trillion plan to repair the nation’s infrastructure. They called Trump’s plan a giveaway to wealthy investors and urged him to work with Democrats to pass a bill that includes real funding for projects around the country.
“President Trump promised to make infrastructure a top priority, but he’s been in the White House nearly five months and this is the first we’re hearing he’s even beginning to address it. Americans are sick and tired of broken promises. We need action now,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said in a statement.