Guest Editorial: Don't dismiss infrastructure proposal
Anyone who has spent hours in traffic, or been embarrassed by how aging U.S. infrastructure systems stack up against modern ones abroad, knows that America is doing palpable harm by not maintaining, let alone expanding, its roads and rails.
So what to make of the long-awaited $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that President Trump released Monday?
The first conclusion is that Trump should have made this his first order of business, rather than an effort to strip health coverage for millions of Americans or to push through tax cuts focused on the wealthy, including heirs of large estates and passive investors in large private companies.
The second is that he doesn’t really have a $1.5 trillion plan. He has a plan that would spend $200 billion in federal money over 10 years, with the remainder coming from states and businesses — which is to say from higher state taxes, tolls and user fees.
But a third thing to say is this: It’s not such a crazy idea.
To be sure, the 55-page Trump plan is in some ways a cop-out, recognizing the need for politically difficult revenue increases and then telling the states to do the heavy lifting.
Even so, it would at least push transportation in the direction it needs to go. It would speed up the maddening delays and endless reviews that often stand in the way of new projects. Road improvements would be funded largely by the people who benefit from them and according to business principles.
To see the value of this approach, consider the difference between America’s highways and airports. Roads are often underfunded, overused and in ill repair. But with some notable exceptions, such as New York LaGuardia, airports do a reasonably good job of keeping up.
They do this by maximizing their revenues from gate fees, parking and retail leases, then working with airlines and other stakeholders to plow money back into upgrades and expansions.
Imagine if roads were funded the same way.
This might start by bringing the federal gasoline tax at least back to where it was 25 years ago. The 18.4-cent a gallon tax was not indexed when it was set in 1993, so it has effectively been cut almost in half by inflation.
Ultimately, a better system for funding roads would involve wider use of smart tolls that rise and fall depending on traffic volume. Trump's plan would give states more flexibility to impose such tolls.
A system like that would produce hundreds of billions of dollars each decade that could be used to repair, upgrade and expand the nation’s roads. Some of it could be diverted to mass transit to alleviate road congestion and provide options for those without cars.
This is not a hugely popular idea. But the more time Americans spend parked on America’s highways, the more they should think about alternative ways to get things done. And that might start by not dismissing Trump’s concepts out of hand. Say what you will about the president, he has a track record of knowing how to get stuff built.
USA Today, Feb. 12