Who leaked the infrastructure plan? Who is the plan’s author? What are the real numbers behind the plan? For now, these fall into the category of things we don’t know. Reuters reporter David Shepardson said via Twitter that it isn’t clear the document has been written by a government agency. The White House would not comment on the legitimacy of the document to Axios, saying generically that it looks forward to "presenting a plan in the near future."
We do know that Axios first reported the leaked copy, and perhaps the document provides some insight into where the administration plans to engage on the infrastructure topic. Now that tax reform legislation has left the building, the administration has been gearing up to introduce its infrastructure plan, appended to the president’s first State of the Union address next week. Maybe it isn’t a leak so much as a strategically-planted feed to test the waters of public opinion?
Intrigue and espionage aside, the six-page report outlines a plan to use federal grants to spur state, local, and private investment. It also appropriates a big chunk of funds to rural infrastructure projects, including transportation, broadband installation, and water and waste treatment programs.
Previous reports have suggested the administration will seek $200 billion in grants over 10 years to leverage investment from state, local, and private sources, hoping to spur about $1 trillion total in spending. Trump pledged a $1 trillion infrastructure plan as part of his campaign.
The bulk of the plan’s appropriations — 50 percent — would go toward an “infrastructure incentives initiative” that would encourage state, local and private investment in “core infrastructure” in the form of grants. The “rural infrastructure program” would highlight investment in rural areas “to facilitate freight movement, improve access to reliable and affordable transportation.”
Such measures sound good in general, but their very breadth and vagueness sounds more like a philosophical approach than hardcore specifics like a gas tax. And why isn’t there any mention of the gas tax in the six-page document?
The “leaked” plan also calls for liberalizing tolling policy and allowing states to commercialize interstate rest areas, among other things, as a means of funding infrastructure. NATSO, the trade association of America’s travel plaza and truckstop industry, had a swift and clear response to this item. In a prepared statement, president and CEO Lisa Mullings issued the following statement:
“As an industry that depends on the efficient movement of motorists and goods along the Interstate Highway System, we understand that infrastructure is the key to a strong U.S. economy. It is therefore imperative that the federal government maintain its strong national role in infrastructure development, and not relinquish its responsibility to the states or the private sector. We urge the Administration to refrain from widespread tolling of America’s infrastructure and the commercialization of interstate rest areas.”
On first blush the commercialization of rest areas sounds hellish. Lining up so you can pay for the privilege of relieving yourself? Could toll roads get worse than they already are on I-95? EZ passes are hardly the solution for a dystopian future of blinking mindlessly behind a sea of taillights mile after mile. Drivers better get your audio books ready, you might have time to at least cover the collected works of Charles Dickens, even if your cargo’s not covering the cost of the trip.
On the other hand, if the Germans have anything to teach us about engineering efficiency, maybe it’s the model of their rest stops. Founded in 1998, Tank and Rast call themselves a “modern service provider” for Germany’s famous Autobahn highway. They offer a wide variety of services from hotel accommodations to “culinary variety” to fuel and car-related services, as well as the SANIFAIR system. People find the hygiene and hospitality of the bathrooms so superior to the alternatives that they prefer to pay and report very high satisfaction ratings. But has the US ever pretended that their governmental institutions could be run like the Germans?
It has also long been argued that such Interstate commercialization takes away from local establishments. Those smaller communities, however, may not stand a chance against the tidal flow of national legislation and industry transformation.
Whatever the case, it’s been rumored that in private meetings Trump has already floated the idea of raising the federal gas tax by as much as 50 cents per gallon. While the idea seems to have been met with a chilly response from his own party, the Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, Thomas J. Donohue is doing his level best to whip up support for a 25 percent increase.
“We cannot build a 21st century economy on 20th century infrastructure. This year can and must be the year of major infrastructure investment. We have the political will, the bipartisan support — and we certainly have the need. Now it’s time for action,” says Donohue.
For all the long-term strategic ways the US could develop infrastructural funding, the bottom line is that right now in the present tense, the country is woefully underfunded. The buck has been passed at the executive and legislative level for decades. With the revolution of technologies ranging from autonomous vehicles, to the Internet of Things, to blockchain and the increased demand of last-mile delivery solutions, to Smart Cities seeking sustainable solutions, the urgency for improvements is skyrocketing.
Maybe an increase in the fuel tax is sounding good enough to achieve bipartisan support? Why does that sound too easy?
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