The fal­lacy of ‘crum­bling’ Amer­i­can in­fra­struc­ture

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - VIEWS & VOICES - JONAH GOLD­BERG ——— Jonah Gold­berg writes Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

It’s In­fra­struc­ture Week (again), and who among us can con­tain his ex­cite­ment?

The pres­i­dent, for one. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wanted to an­nounce the big­gest in­vest­ment in pub­lic works since Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower un­veiled the in­ter­state high­way sys­tem. But in the wake of tax cuts, the real deficit was too big to close what Trump calls “the in­fra­struc­ture deficit.” So he had to set­tle for a plan that would spend $200 bil­lion in fed­eral tax­payer money over the next decade and lay the rest of the $1.5 tril­lion on state and lo­cal tax­pay­ers.

It al­most surely won’t fly. Many states are as broke as the fed­eral govern­ment — and they can’t print money.

In his Big Build­ing, Big Spend­ing am­bi­tions, Trump is at his most con­ven­tional. Politi­cians, as trans­porta­tion ex­pert Ran­dal O’Toole puts it, have a deep-seated bias in fa­vor of “rib­bon-cut­ting over brooms.” They just love wield­ing a gi­ant pair of scis­sors to cut a shiny rib­bon on a new project. You can put your name on a new tun­nel or bridge. It’s harder to take credit for fix­ing an ex­ist­ing one.

Even Trump’s in­sis­tence that our in­fra­struc­ture is “crum­bling” is among the most en­dur­ing clichés of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. A search of Lex­isNexis shows that Amer­ica’s in­fra­struc­ture has been crum­bling since the late 1970s. And it’s sim­ply not true. The most re­cent data is from 2012, when Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was in­sist­ing that our in­fra­struc­ture was crum­bling. At that time, 80 per­cent of our high­ways were in ac­cept­able shape or bet­ter. Nearly 97 per­cent of ru­ral roads met that grade.

Bridge fail­ures in Washington state in 2013 and Min­nesota in 2007 were greeted as sym­bolic proof of sys­temic dis­re­pair. But the Washington state bridge col­lapsed be­cause a truck driver car­ry­ing an over­sized load ig­nored posted warn­ings. It would have col­lapsed if it had been brand-new. And the Min­nesota col­lapse was the re­sult of a con­struc­tion de­fect.

Mean­while, the con­di­tions of our bridges have been im­prov­ing con­sis­tently for the last two decades.

Of course some Amer­i­can in­fra­struc­ture could use up­dat­ing. The prob­lem, how­ever, isn’t un­der-in­vest­ment. In 2014, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice, fed­eral state and lo­cal govern­ments spent $416 bil­lion on in­fra­struc­ture.

The real prob­lem is that we don’t spend money on the right prob­lems.

A re­cent ex­posé by the New York Times showed that politi­cians and the unions that own them are to blame for the Big Ap­ple’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing sub­way sys­tem. For years they’ve raided trans­porta­tion funds for pet projects, like fail­ing up­state ski re­sorts.

Be­yond New York, a per­fect storm of rib­bon-cut­ting fetishiz­ing, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and envy of other coun­tries has led to high-speedrail ma­nia. Although zippy trains are nifty, they zoom past the fact Amer­ica has the best rail sys­tem — for our needs. In Europe, trucks move goods and trains move peo­ple. In Amer­ica, we do it the other way around.

Trump’s pro­posal does in­clude a few worth­while am­bi­tions, such as stream­lin­ing the ap­proval process for pub­lic works and im­prov­ing in­cen­tives to come in un­der bud­get.

Af­ter the 1994 Northridge earth­quake, then-Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Pete Wil­son used his emer­gency pow­ers to by­pass the usual red tape and union­ized ex­tor­tion that drive up costs and string out con­struc­tion time. Ex­perts thought it would take two years to fix the Santa Mon­ica Free­way. Wil­son of­fered con­trac­tors huge cash bonuses to meet tight dead­lines. The re­pairs were com­pleted in less than three months.

The Trump plan, how­ever, would leave it to Congress to fig­ure out how to de-boon­dog­gle-ize in­fra­struc­ture projects, which is not a cause for op­ti­mism.

Trump sees in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment pretty much the same way Democrats do — as a jobs pro­gram. That doesn’t work ei­ther (see: Ja­pan). But if Trump had be­gun his pres­i­dency with build­ing as his top pri­or­ity, he would have won a lot of bi­par­ti­san sup­port and turned the GOP into a big-govern­ment party much sooner.

Alas — or, de­pend­ing on your point of view, lucky break — he spent his cap­i­tal, po­lit­i­cal and fis­cal, else­where. And now there’s none left for the riot of rib­bon-cut­ting he wanted.

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