In­fra­struc­ture deal crum­bles

The one thing most every­one ex­pected from the White House this year — a big new in­fra­struc­ture deal — now looks dead in the wa­ter. How bad a set­back is it?

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - FRONT PAGE -

The one thing every­one ex­pected from the White House this year now looks dead in the wa­ter.

“In­fra­struc­ture Week” wrapped up with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump pulling the plug on his own Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil on In­fra­struc­ture. It wasn’t even fully staffed.

Con­struc­tion stocks, ex­pected to shoot up as Congress ap­proved ma­jor out­lays, are tank­ing.

Pan­els of ad­vi­sors are un­likely sav­iors in mo­ments this un­cer­tain, but when it comes to in­fra­struc­ture — a bi­par­ti­san is­sue with strong pub­lic sup­port — there’s good rea­son to con­sider form­ing a pri­vate-sec­tor coun­cil ca­pa­ble of chart­ing a path for­ward.

The harsh truth is that Trump him­self is re­spon­si­ble for fail­ing to move for­ward as ex­pected on an is­sue as im­por­tant and straight­for­ward as in­fra­struc­ture. Thanks to his re­sponse to the re­cent events in Char­lottesville, Va., Trump drove away so many busi­ness lead­ers af­fil­i­ated with his ad­min­is­tra­tion that, in ad­di­tion to los­ing the sup­port of his nascent in­fra­struc­ture coun­cil, he also faced so many de­fec­tions from the Amer­i­can Man­u­fac­tur­ing Coun­cil and the Strate­gic and Pol­icy Fo­rum that those groups had to be shut­tered as well.

For a pres­i­dent voted in on the ap­par­ent strength of his abil­ity to bro­ker work­able deals with es­tab­lished play­ers in busi­ness and in­dus­try, these are not just set­backs. They are in­di­ca­tors that Trump can’t de­liver on what was, by any mea­sure, one of his pres­i­dency’s core value propo­si­tions.

The no­tion of de­pend­ing on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to solve all of our trans­porta­tion issues was al­ways folly, though.

Gov­ern­ment man­age­ment of in­fra­struc­ture has failed just as spec­tac­u­larly — if not more so — than in other ar­eas.

The re­sult had led to un­met needs, added costs (not only from in­ef­fi­ciency, but also from poli­cies like the fed­eral Davis-Ba­con Act and state and lo­cal pre­vail­ing wage man­dates that re­quire above-mar­ket union wages to be paid on pub­lic works projects, sig­nif­i­cantly hik­ing their costs), in­fra­struc­ture de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, main­te­nance back­logs, and fan­ci­ful, eco­nom­i­cally un­jus­ti­fied projects un­der­taken pri­mar­ily for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. Think tran­sit projects with overop­ti­mistic rid­er­ship pro­jec­tions and low­ball cost es­ti­mates.

More­over, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s ubiq­ui­tous in­volve­ment in state and lo­cal in­fra­struc­ture projects makes little sense — un­less it is to bring some pork back to rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ home dis­tricts.

So, while it is all well and good to pon­der the na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture needs, and to con­sult ex­perts in the field for ad­vice and ideas, we should be look­ing more to get gov­ern­ment out of pro­vid­ing in­fra­struc­ture, in fa­vor of pri­va­ti­za­tion — or, at the very least, pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships — where projects are funded by pri­vate cap­i­tal and through user fees, where ap­pro­pri­ate.

To his credit, the PPP ap­proach was a ma­jor com­po­nent of Trump’s in­fra­struc­ture plans.

But too much of the rest of it amounted to a blank check for un­known projects with un­de­fined fund­ing sources.

It may be tempt­ing to look to a cen­tral author­ity to solve prob­lems as large and com­plex as our in­fra­struc­ture needs, but we would be bet­ter served to re­turn those funds to tax­pay­ers and al­low in­fra­struc­ture de­ci­sions to be based on sup­ply and de­mand — not po­lit­i­cal pull.

We should be look­ing more to get gov­ern­ment out of pro­vid­ing in­fra­struc­ture, in fa­vor of pri­va­ti­za­tion — or, at the very least, pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships.

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