If Trump Wants to “Fix It First,” a Big Spending Spree Isn’t the Way to Go

Until states stop spending so much on road expansion, not repair, "crumbling infrastructure" will remain a problem. Graphic: Smart Growth America
Until states stop spending so much on road expansion, not repair, "crumbling infrastructure" will remain a problem. Graphic: Smart Growth America

It’s hard to pin Donald Trump down on policy issues. Witness Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s quickly rescinded trial balloon for a 20 percent tariff on Mexican imports yesterday. But let’s take one of Trump’s recent infrastructure pronouncements literally and see where the implications lead.

At the GOP retreat in Philadelphia yesterday, Trump said he wants to fix existing infrastructure before building new infrastructure. Here are his remarks as relayed by Politico:

Our infrastructure is in serious trouble. We will build new roads and highways and tunnels and airports and railways across the nation. We will fix our existing product before we build anything brand new, however. We have to fix what we have. It’s a mess. So we’re going to fix it first. The thing I do best in life is build. We will fix it first ’cause we have a lot of things that are in bad shape.

This is actually a good way to approach the problem of decrepit infrastructure. It’s also completely inconsistent with the infrastructure white paper Trump’s team put out during the campaign, which would favor toll road construction and overlook decrepit infrastructure that can’t generate user fees and profits.

State transportation agencies could get their infrastructure into good condition without much new funding — they just have to stop spending the money they have on road expansions. In total, states spent more on road expansion than maintenance from 2009 to 2011, according to Smart Growth America and Taxpayers for Common Sense [PDF].

A real commitment to fixing transportation infrastructure would have to put a stop to expensive highway expansions, which only increase long-term maintenance obligations. A spending surge won’t get the job done — what’s needed is a campaign to impose fiscal discipline on state DOTs.

  • Local Street Maintenance is one of those areas that needs to go digital and is still accounted in pen & paper format for most towns and cities.

    Pavement Condition Index (PCI) and International Roughness Index (IRI) are existing metrics to measure citywide pavement quality and they are both woefully outdated or over-engineered solutions that don’t move the needle towards sustainable maintenance.

    PCI was an index developed in the 1970s where a inspector literally eyeballs street defects and distresses and enters it into a spreadsheet or “database”.

    IRI requires multimillion $$$$$ measurement equipment that increase the per-mile inspection cost into unsustainable.

    Furthermore, both surveys are done only once every few years.

    There is a clear cut need to leverage advances in low-cost data collection, storage and analysis tools to empower cities to perform frequent and complete street condition assessments. There is an opportunity here for cities, big and small to coordinate digital resources around street maintenance (that doesn’t mean just potholes but also things like trash and lane markings for an inevitable autonomous future)

    At ARGO, we are building a low-cost scalable, digital infrastructure around preventative street maintenance via our SQUID project by frequently collecting images of the street across the entire city to enable a remote, virtual and eventually automated process of citywide street inspection.

    In April, 2016, we prototyped with the City of Syracuse and were able to collect 500+ center-lane miles of the street condition imagery+data (~3/4 of Syracuse’s entire street grid) in less than 2 weeks.

    More at http://www.argolabs.org/projects

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/83a0b7ef8588754bdf7e8180a833022f08045006d65511bf7e9636b38cbca19c.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/17d293c7943a5666d42356bf04ae9e9abe3609ebaf49018a911bb71787f99b14.jpg
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/66d295d906cab5f7ab988f3372e3087d2839038a060ff15a69a071c8917cee5c.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/468882ed35efcbfef6c8b15bc6eea4389275417a13cd8fce204cd3ea9270a0b9.png

  • TakeFive

    One may be able to discern intent but taking Trump’s statements literally is a fools errand. That said what this does is to put pressure on Congress that infrastructure has a higher priority than budget deficits. I would agree.

    The return on investing in infrastructure projects that last many decades at today’s cost is one of the most productive things that government/taxpayers can do.

  • cjstephens

    So you were angry with Trump because you didn’t like his campaign platform on transportation infrastructure, OK, I can get that, even if I don’t agree. But now that he’s president and is proposing things that you’ve actually been asking for, like large-scale investment in infrastructure projects, you’re still angry at him? So you now that he has said he wants to spend money on these projects, all of a sudden you say that’s not the solution after all? It leads me to think that no matter what he does, you’re going to snipe at him. How about waiting until he actually makes concrete proposals? Is that too much to ask for? The top 50 hit list of projects that got leaked last week looks pretty enticing for transit advocates, especially for the NYC area (Second Avenue Subway! Gateway! Finally!). Sniping for sniping’s sake makes me take your writing (and opinions) less seriously.

  • Dr. TJ

    +cjstephens

    The problem is he can’t propose all these massive spending programs (build a wall, put a trillion dollars into infrastructure, round up and deport illegals, repeal the ACA, increase defense spending, etc.) while promising to cut taxes, especially for the wealthy. Or was the promise to cut taxes just another lie to get the uneducated to vote for him?

  • cjstephens

    Of course he has to come up with a way to pay for all of this, and that’s never easy. But my point was that Streetsblog was being critical of Trump when he is, in fact, trying to complete all the projects that Streetsbog has been demanding for years (and which the prior administration never got around to, either). It’s hypocritical, to say the least.

  • Dr. TJ

    I don’t mean to belittle what you said, but I think you misspoke. It’s not that it’s “never easy”, to pay for these things, it’s that it’s impossible to pay for them and cut taxes at the same time. So either he’s going to insanely drive up the debt (going against stated Republican principles) or he’s not going to cut taxes as pledged. Either way, he will turn out to be dishonest.

    I never heard the prior administration say they were going to get to them so unless they did, that’s a non sequitur.

  • cjstephens

    Since we’re nitpicking here, it is technically possible to pay for big projects while cutting taxes – you just have to cut spending on other things. Given that we’re barely a month into the new administration, it’s waaaay too early to expect details on how any of these projects would get paid for. And my point about the prior administration was to highlight that Streetsblog’s editorial staff operated under the assumption that Obama and his staff could do no wrong, but (at the time of the article), the Trump administration was doing nothing but wrong – and yet here was the Trump administration promising to build Streetsblog’s pet projects, which the apparently flawless Obama administration hadn’t even considered in eight years. I hope that’s clearer for you.

  • Dr. TJ

    Or maybe the Obama administration was being a lot more pragmatic and not promising to do things they knew would drive up the debt. Please don’t forget what the situation was when Obama took over. There was so much going wrong at once that this country was extremely close to another great depression.

    I’ve seen a list of the things Trump wants to cut. They don’t add up to nearly enough to support the spending of the things he has proposed. And then to add a tax cut in as well? It hasn’t been so long ago that I’ve forgotten George Bush cutting taxes for the wealthy and then spending a lot on two wars. It did not go well. I’m willing to learn from history. Is Trump? Again, I’ll say that the tax cut pledge will be either an unfulfilled campaign promise to get elected or a disaster for the debt.

  • cjstephens

    I’ll say it one last time: it’s _waaaaay_ too early to be figuring out how these projects will get paid for. The point is that they’re on the Trump administration’s radar, when the Obama administration wasn’t even considering them. This counts as progress.

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