Trump’s infrastructure plan is a private, expensive bridge to nowhere

On Tuesday, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE delivered his first State of the Union address since being sworn in just over a year ago. The speech, while mostly measured and predictable did contain some interesting notes that raised eyebrows. In between talk of immigration and American unity, the president introduced in part an infrastructure plan to rebuild the country's weakening physical framework. 

For decades, experts have warned of a crumbling American infrastructure, pointing out that we are leaps and bounds behind our counterparts around the world when it comes to the physical and technical structures that support our nation.

The fatal 35W Bridge in Downtown Minneapolis which collapsed a decade ago and took the lives of 13 people shone a painful light on the severity of the situation. Mayors, governors and engineering firms around the country rushed to evaluate bridges, roads, sewers and the like, many of which were found to be structurally deficient and fracture critical.


The calls since then have become louder for America to put significant investment in infrastructure and framework, not only shoring up bridges and tunnels and fixing deficient roads but exploring improvements in everything from transportation models and sustainable waste to smart grid solutions and clean energy. 


When Abraham Lincoln ran for the Illinois State Legislature in 1832 he campaigned on a platform of internal improvements — public works and infrastructure development that would make it easier for people to live productive lives. Donald Trump echoed a very Lincolnesque overture in his 2016 campaign as he often heralded promises of rebuilding roads, bridges, tunnels, and canals.

The Trump plan, while big on numbers, was small on details and left most who listened, including those in the audience, perplexed and perturbed. The Trump plan heralded a $1.5 trillion investment, with only $200 billion coming directly from the federal government and at least $800 billion being leveraged to incentivize local and state governments and private companies to front the bill. 

This will ultimately mean tax breaks for companies who decide to build infrastructure that they will very likely own and operate. This will also most likely mean that those investments will be coupled with user-costs such as tolls that will exist for long periods of time and at prices that will undoubtedly increase as cities continue to face ballooning debts, decreased revenues, declining credit ratings and high unfunded pension liabilities like in Chicago, Cincinnati and Las Vegas. 

Despite the burden that the Trump plan puts on large metropolises, the Trump base in rural America will be the most negatively affected. Trump defeated Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIt is wrong to say 'no collusion' 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era And the winner of the Robert Mueller Sweepstakes is — Vladimir Putin MORE two-to-one in small town America, yet flyover country is left holding the bag as they watch infrastructure continue to crumble in this plan.  

What we saw in the 2016 election was the disconnect between rural, exurb America and urban America; Trump’s populist message resonated in the Bible belt, rust belt, and agricultural centers, where his promises to bring back jobs from industries that have fled across the shores, gone bankrupt or been rendered obsolete by technology struck a chord.

These are the towns, hamlets, villages, and counties that would find themselves the most disadvantaged by Trump's infrastructure plan. Having the lack of population or municipal dollars to carry the burden would make investment less attractive in these places and while the rest of the country moved to a more stable infrastructure they would continue to suffer, much like the people of the Tennessee Valley before the 1933 charter of the Valley Authority brought lights, electricity and flood control to that part of the country. 

Private entities who decide to venture into the realm of infrastructure development and public works will also face some daunting challenges under this plan. States and cities with high credit and bond ratings will be able to borrow larger amounts of money at lower rates; private corporations will not be able to compete with this advantage; this will mean rising costs for projects that will ultimately be passed on to citizens. 

The Trump plan is at best smoke and mirrors. There can be a legtimate and cogent debate on how public works projects should be managed, financed and triaged. There is some worth in talking about taxes and user fees and how they should be structured, but what is painfully obvious is that without a fully funded infrastructure plan that not only builds a better America but builds a safer one, we will continue to lag behind our counterparts in the developed world, the Trump plan does not adequately or seriously address that issue. 

Early supporters of the Trump plan have said that while some details need to be worked out, it is comprehensive and effective and the nuances that those like me nitpick at about providing a full plan in comparison to the Trump plan amount to the difference between wearing a jacket and a coat. In actuality, the differences are glaring and material and they amount closer to the difference between wearing a jacket and a straitjacket.

Kam Buckner is an attorney and lecturer in public policy studies at the University of Chicago.