At a moment when many feel the nation is more divided than ever, in the midst of the post-election analysis and realization, there’s an issue that stands out as a rare source of agreement between parties. It’s a pressing problem that, if given the right attention and resources, could even deliver benefits to a divided electorate as well as both parties: repairing our infrastructure.
In his victory speech last night, President-elect Trump mentioned rebuilding numerous times. “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals,” he said. “ We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
Trumpian flair aside, it’s a rare campaign pledge that actually overlapped with Hillary Clinton’s proposed agenda. This summer, she released a multi-pronged, $275 billion plan—“the biggest investment in American infrastructure in decades”—to create a new generation of jobs and address failing roads, internet infrastructure, and energy systems. At the time, Trump said that he’d double what Clinton proposed, and recently released a proposal to privatize roadbuilding with a massive $137 billion tax credit for construction companies.
Even that may be scratching the surface. Many Americans feel infrastructure is a serious issue—according to a June poll by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, 41 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans said it had gotten worse in the last five years—and experts agree that the problem is massive in scope. The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers said the country would need to spend $3.6 trillion to repair our country’s crumbling roads, rails, pipes, power grids.
Trump has repeatedly described the horrors of the hollowed-out working class; can he create his own New Deal to address this crisis? He’s certainly in a position to act, with a Republican Congress. The last significant federal infrastructure project, President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), was successful, but was only ever meant to be a Band-Aid during a time of crisis.
The challenge will be channelling money to the right places for the right reasons, in a way that benefits all Americans. Based on the Republican platform, it appears the party’s transportation focus will be roads: The proposal calls for shifting how the Highway Trust Fund, a multi-billion dollar source of federal support for transportation, would be spent.
Roads and bridges certainly need all the help they can get, but without investment in rail, mass transit, and cycling infrastructure, we’ll be recommitting ourselves to a system based on cars, and losing an opportunity to build a more sustainable, cleaner transportation system (as the recent New Jersey train crash shows, there’s a steep price to pay for deferred maintenance). And, missing a chance now to invest in an updated energy grid and better internet infrastructure would be throwing away a golden opportunity to develop the kind of 21st-century systems that will be a source of future jobs.
Trump has always fancied himself a great builder. Addressing our infrastructure shortfalls in a way that builds for the future and the common good—instead of financial gain and personal prestige—would give him a chance to make good on that boast. His privatization plan raises serious red flags; instead of using government funding, he’d tap private investors to build their own highways, who would charge tolls to recoup their investments. While the idea would save money initially, since the government wouldn’t fit the bill, it would cede control of vital public infrastructure to business interests.
While the bulk of his proposed agenda contains divisive policies, fixing roads and putting people to work is a rare example of a plan that could earn bipartisan agreement. Done in the right way, it could help address one of the pressing issues underlying our tense political moment: a lack of good blue-collar jobs.