TV mobster Tony Soprano, in the midst of garrotting an enemy, famously said: “One thing about us wise guys — the hustle never ends.”
I flashed on Tony’s credo yesterday while parsing Donald Trump’s long-awaited plan to repair our highways, bridges, and tunnels. Gee, what a shock it was to discover that it’s merely the latest of his endless hustles. It would barely make a dent in what needs to be done, and the pittance he’s proposing will probably die in Congress anyway. Did we really expect anything better?
The White House says this is Infrastructure Week, for what that’s worth. Its first Infrastructure Week was actually last June — but nobody cared, because it was trumped by James Comey’s testimony on Capitol Hill. Then, in mid-August, Trump met the press, intending to talk about infrastructure — but he veered wildly off message when he defended the “very fine people” who’d marched that weekend with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. And three days after that disaster, Trump disbanded his Presidential Advisory Council on Infrastructure — which he’d created via executive order only four weeks earlier.
Indeed, it’s easy to forget, because it feels like this regime has been in office forever, that Trump has been promising a big beautiful plan since 2016. In a campaign book, he promised something bold in his first 100 days, a plan that would trigger “the biggest economic boom in this country since the New Deal.” On election night he vowed to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports … 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.” He went further in his inaugural speech; in addition to repairs, he would also build “new roads and highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and railways.”
Well, he has finally unveiled his plan (nearly a year late, but who’s counting). Naturally, it’s a joke.
Let’s start with a baseline. The American Society of Civil Engineers says that America needs to invest $4.6 trillion by 2025 in order to improve its battered infrastructure and build anew. But Trump is merely offering $200 billion — less than one-twentieth the necessary price tag.
He admitted to The Wall Street Journal, a few weeks ago, that his federal outlay is “not a large amount,” but he envisions that state and local governments and private investors will be inspired to kick in enough money to bring the total infrastructure outlay to $1.5 trillion. In other words, he believes that in a “public-private partnership,” state and local governments and private investors will foot 80 percent of the tab.
Trump is dreaming if he thinks that cash-strapped states and municipalities are going to come up with the billions to fix their own infrastructure, especially their federal roads and bridges. And there’s no evidence that private investors would rush to take up the slack. At best, some regions would get their roads and bridges fixed, others would not. And these local public and private sources would need to raise revenue to pay for their projects. That would mean putting tolls on the roads — and essentially taxing motorists.
But here’s the fun part: Take a guess who has complained in the past that a public-private partnership won’t work.
Trump, of course. Last autumn, word leaked (as it always does) that he didn’t like the concept. He reportedly told congressional Democrats about a failed experiment in Indiana, where then-Gov. Mike Pence had hired a Spanish construction firm to extend an interstate highway, only to dissolve the deal when the firm fell far behind schedule. He voiced similar complaints to Republicans last month. Trump’s attitude has reportedly “infuriated” his aides, who’d been working for months on the partnership concept. But apparently he has now embraced it anyway, because he has nothing else.
Besides, his meager $200-billion federal tab is really a bait and switch. Trump came up with that money by proposing to cut existing infrastructure bucks — most notably, by slashing outlays for Amtrak. So his net federal investment in infrastructure would be almost nil. And while he previously claimed that his “New Deal”-style plan would create as many as 13 million new jobs, he’s vague at best about job numbers now.
(If Trump and the congressional GOP hadn’t enacted a plutocratic tax law that serves the upper brackets, a law that sucks $1.5 trillion out of the federal revenue stream, a lot more money would be available to fix roads and bridges and tunnels. But try telling that to the Trump voters who thought they were making America great.)
Trump’s plan is probably DOA anyway. It will require 60 filibuster-proof votes to pass the Senate, and many Democrats already think it’s too little. Plus, they’re loath to cooperate with Trump on anything, for obvious reasons. On the flip side, many conservative Republicans think that $200 billion is too much, and they’re already hip to the fact that Trump’s policy convictions are notoriously fluid.
So don’t be surprised if his latest hustle amounts to nothing. As the man himself tweeted in 2013, “Leadership: Whatever happens, you’re responsible. If it doesn’t happen, you’re responsible.”