June 9, 2017
President Donald Trump deserves praise for trying to focus the nation's attention on the dire state of our nation's infrastructure. In announcing the outlines of a infrastructure plan, he pointed to evidence supplied by the World Economic Forum that ranks the U.S. 12th in the world for the quality of our infrastructure. But, it gets worse. The forum ranks the U.S. 13th for rail infrastructure and 17th for our electricity infrastructure.
Trump also made the point that failing to improve our infrastructure hurts business competitiveness because old roads, freight yards and energy grids make doing business more expense. Ordinary consumers also pay for the sorry state of America's infrastructure each time they have to repair their flat tires or pay higher local taxes to cover the costs of unsafe bridges, or roads that subside or massive water main breaks.
The president also deserves credit for challenging the irrational conviction that federal control of the interstate highways is sacrosanct. He proposed removing federal authority on these roads so that states and localities can place tolls to generate funds for repair of highways originally built with some, or all, federal funds.
The president's plan opens up new opportunities for private investment and management of our nation's infrastructure assets. In some cases that makes sense. But that gets us to the weaknesses of the Trump plan.
First, his plan's heavy reliance on private financing paid for by users simply isn't a solution that can work for most of our infrastructure needs. There are thousands of miles of interstate highways that don't have enough traffic to generate sufficient funds for repair. Our nation's bridges are in crisis. More than 60,000 of them are structurally deficient and only about 100 of these bridges have enough traffic to generate the revenues needed for their repair.
Not only is this a substantive problem of the president's plan, it's a political problem. The roads and bridges less traveled have one thing in common: They are in rural America.
But the real failing of the president's plan is that he has backed away from his promise to spend $1 trillion in public funds over 10 years to revitalize our nation's infrastructure. After sifting the administration's pronouncements, the most cynical part of the plan becomes evident. The president is proposing only $200 billion over 10 years in new federal infrastructure support and that federal support will only come in the form of tax credits to private investors.
To think that states, localities and private sources can make up the difference in what is needed is ludicrous. In the last five years, 24 states have raised their gas taxes and nine more are planning to do so this year. And we are still falling further behind in getting our infrastructure in a state of safe repair, let alone meeting the needs of our growing population and our stagnant economy. If there's one thing we expected this president to know, it's that you can't do infrastructure on the cheap.
Without more federal spending on infrastructure, the president's plan is going nowhere. He should throw his support behind the Corker/Murhpy bill in the Senate that boosts the gas tax by 10 cents and indexes it to inflation. (That's right, Senator Bob Corker, the conservative Senator from Tennessee.)
The president should fold the gas tax increase into his overall tax relief plan which he says will provide thousands of dollars of relief to middle-class families. If he does so, the $140 in increased gas taxes paid by the average commuter will be more than offset by the president's tax cut.
But to really get our infrastructure in world class shape, he should add to that tax bill the repatriation of the trillions of corporate cash reserves sitting on the sidelines overseas avoiding U.S. corporate taxes. Those funds should be put to work rebuilding American via a 10 percent repatriation tax with 100 percent of the tax revenues dedicated to a decade of infrastructure investments. Just a few days ago, this proposal was endorsed by another smart CEO, Tim Cook of Apple, who has $257 billion in his company's cash overseas that he believes could be put to good work rebuilding our nation.
In one comprehensive plan, the president could raise the gas tax, cut middle-class taxes, repatriate trillions of dollars, expand the economy by creating millions of new jobs and modernize our county's most essential public assets. Only this sort of plan will get Democrats to the table. Better yet, only a plan this big can put American back on top.
Donna Cooper is a former fellow with the Center for American Progress and author of a series of reports for CAP on infrastructure including the Infrastructure Imperative.
Ed Rendell served as the 45th governor of Pennsylvania and is co-chair of Building America's Future.