For the 5,713th time since taking office, Donald Trump failed to deliver on his promise of even a single day devoted to infrastructure policy, let alone an entire week.
The always coming, never arrived “Infrastructure Week” has become a running joke, a totem of the Trump Administration’s utter incompetence when it comes to actual governance and policy. It’s hard to conceive, then, that infrastructure was supposed to be one of the few policy matters that Donald Trump — a second-generation accidental real estate magnate — could speak about with some authority.
Of course, that premise was based on the faulty assumption that because Trump has his name on a few tall buildings, he must have some insight into how infrastructure works. In fact, the opposite is true — some of Trump’s most notable properties stand as glistening reminders of just how ill-equipped he is to wield any kind of authority whatsoever. Infrastructure spending is of the utmost importance in the United States right now. And for that reason, Democrats should do everything in their power to keep Donald Trump’s tiny little hands off of it.
In fairness to the president, his deficiency is one shared by most of his fellow Republicans, and an alarming number of Democrats. To these politicians, infrastructure spending is simply shorthand for new construction projects which provide jobs, improve standards of living, and are largely financed by private developers subsidized by state and federal dollars.
These public-private partnerships are adored by conservatives, ever eager to prioritize the free market over the public good. But they are appealing to plenty of Democrats as well, who are taken in by the prospect of private financiers footing the bill instead of the public, which would necessarily be hit with higher taxes as a result.
There are several problems with this model, however. The most glaring is that outsourcing infrastructure projects to private companies means shifting the objective of those projects, from a public service to a profit generator. In places like Virginia, politicians happily signed away the rights to some of the state’s most heavily trafficked highways to private companies — in the case of the Commonwealth, to Australian company Transurban — in exchange for an influx of cash to expand and maintain toll roads. But that means it is now Transurban, and not the people of Virginia, who have final say over things like pricing, additional construction, and maintenance.
A study last year of Transurban’s toll roads in Northern Virginia found that residents were paying well over $100 for every hour they saved during rush hour on the Beltway by using their privatized toll lanes instead of the publicly financed ones. And even so, Transurban’s financials suggest they aren’t bringing in enough revenue to even cover the operating expenses of the toll lanes they oversee, let alone repayments and interest on the initial cost of their construction — payments financed by a loan from the federal government.
Rather than proceeding with caution, in neighboring Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is pushing hard for his own deal with Transurban to implement toll lanes in the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C., a deal which would far eclipse the scale of Virginia’s contract and create the largest public-private partnership in the country.
Not only are Virginia’s drivers paying tolls to a foreign-owned company instead of into the public coffers, but the deal struck by Virginia lawmakers with Transurban also bars the state from doing any construction of their own to alleviate congestion. Lawmakers floated adding an additional lane to I-95 at one particular bottleneck south of the nation’s capital, only to discover that doing so would violate their contract with Transurban, which could sue the state for lost revenue by claiming expanded public highways would mean fewer people using their private toll roads.
Chicago is still suffering from its own public-private partnership deal involving parking meters. Signed in a hurry during the recession in 2008, the city maintains a contract with a Chicago Parking Meters LLC, a privately-held company backed by a consortium of investors, many from outside the United States, to manage a significant percentage of the on-street parking meters and the streets that house them throughout city.
With complete autonomy over prices, parking rates have more than doubled in the years since they’ve been operating the meters, generating nearly a billion dollars in revenue for the company. At their current rate of return, private investors will recoup their entire investment in the city by 2021 — and their contract lasts through 2083. That’s 62 years of public dollars funneled into the coffers of a privately held company instead of the public piggy bank.
So why do cities, states, and the federal government continue to entertain the idea of public-private partnerships when it comes to infrastructure? Because lawmakers — Republicans in particular — are loath to address the actual solutions to a growing problem.
The infrastructure spending we actually need involves raising existing taxes. It involves implementing new and creative ones like the congestion tax that New York City finally passed earlier this year. It involves putting an end to grotesque tax breaks handed out to companies like Amazon or sports franchises like the Atlanta Braves that promise to invest in improvements for their communities and dramatically underdeliver.
And it involves focusing more on maintaining public roads, tunnels, bridges, and other aging construction projects before any more of them collapse and kill dozens of people. Paving roads and repairing bridges is not the sexiest ways for local governments to spend taxpayer dollars — but these tasks shouldn’t be left to a corporate pizza chain either.
Everything we know about Donald Trump suggests that he is incapable of doing anything that isn’t simultaneously glamorous and half-assed, including and especially when it comes to construction.