President Donald Trump’s trip to Cincinnati Wednesday to highlight the nation’s crumbling infrastructure needs carries echoes of President Barack Obama’s 2011 trip to the city’s Brent Spence Bridge.
But the similarity ends at the photo op.
While both men have used the Ohio city to highlight the nation’s vast infrastructure needs — Obama the bridge and Trump on inland waterways — how they would pay to meet those needs is vastly different.
Obama would’ve paid for his infrastructure plan with an injection of federal dollars. Trump, whose plan is still being formulated, would rely far more on private investment with a much smaller federal outlay.
According to his budget, Trump would invest $200 billion over 10 years — and just $5 billion in fiscal 2018 — into the nation’s roads, bridges, airports and inland waterways. Administration officials say the plan the president announced Monday to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system would be a marker for how he would approach efforts to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, with private funding carrying the load.
By leveraging private investment, relying on state and city taxes and divesting from some transportation functions — such as air-traffic control operations — the administration says it can do more with fewer taxpayer dollars.
But some question whether privatization of transportation can work on such a broad scale.
“You can’t have a toll booth lined up at every intersection,” said Chris Runyan of the Ohio Contractors Association. “Yes, it has a place, but is it going to be a solve-all for a $1 trillion program? No.”
Runyan said while privatization has worked in some cases — he said the Kasich administration’s turnpike privatization was relatively successful – it’s not clear how city roads and rural highways would fit in a private companies priorities. And how will baseline maintenance of the transportation system be handled? he asked.
“Without a revenue stream that goes back to the investors, who wants to invest in that?” he asked.
Few dispute how vast the needs are. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, driving on roads in need of repair in Ohio costs each driver $475 per year, and 6.9 percent of the state’s bridges are considered structurally deficient. Drinking water needs in Ohio are an estimated $12.2 billion, and wastewater needs total $14.58 billion.
The state also has 362 dams that are considered to have a high-hazard potential.
Matt Bruning, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the state has been creative in generating money to invest in its roads and bridges.
“By finding efficiencies, leveraging the Ohio Turnpike, and using other innovative sources of funding, we’ve been able to put an unprecedented $14 billion to work on nearly 7,000 projects to improve travel in our state since Gov. John Kasich took office,” he said.
Infrastructure is one of those rare political issues where people on opposite sides of the aisle tend to agree: an improved network of roads and bridges are a catalyst to an improved economy.
The problem is the cost of some of these projects. During his presidential campaign, Trump vowed to fix the nation’s infrastructure problems but did not say how.
Casey Dinges, a senior managing director of public affairs for the American Society of Civil Engineers, said ultimately, taxpayers pay for infrastructure.
“You can pay taxes or tolls,” he said. “When people think privatization or public-private partnerships, they think it’s free or easy money coming from somewhere. That’s not the case. You’re going to pay either way.”
But Dinges said there are some advantages to privatization.
“Things can move a little faster if you’ve got a private entity involved,” Dinges said.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said some of the privatization could be done through bonds.
“I think the potential is there,” Portman said, adding that it must be done in a way that “incentivizes investment in the kind of infrastructure that serves the public good.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the president’s plan falls short.
“We need the real, meaningful investments the president promised on the campaign trail, not handouts to Wall Street or fees and tolls on working families.”
‘We don’t get manna from heaven’
For decades, the federal government has paid for infrastructure improvements through the Highway Trust Fund, a pot of money paid for through the gas tax. But that 18.4 cents a gallon tax has not been increased since Bill Clinton’s first term, and there appears to be little appetite in Congress to do so now.
“We don’t get manna from heaven,” Runyan said, “but that’s what people seem to be looking for.”
At least 22 states have increased their own gas tax since 2013, though Ohio is not one of them. The state last increased its gas tax in 2003.
Steve Davis of Transportation for America, an alliance devoted to improved transportation policy, said no “magical silver bullet” will solve the nation’s infrastructure problems.
He doesn’t think Trump’s plan will either.
“At the heart of this plan is the plan to require states and localities that are already cash strapped and facing difficult budget circumstances already to shoulder more of the burden in order to reduce federal investment into infrastructure,” he said. “That is not a trillion dollar infrastructure plan.”
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