President Trump May Be a Friend to Transit
While many Republicans politicians oppose public transportation, especially rail transit and intercity rail, Donald Trump appears to be a supporter. Perhaps that should not surprise us given that is a New Yorker. While he may not often use New York’s subways, he certainly knows the city would come to a halt without it. What would his New York real estate investments be worth if New York’s rail transit ceased to operate? Businessman are aware of this sort of thing.
Trump’s few statements on infrastructure and passenger rail also give cause for optimism. He has repeatedly called for a massive program to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, according to Business Insider, “Rebuild the country’s infrastructure – – nobody can do that like me, believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below costs, way below what anyone ever thought. I look at these roads being built all over the country and I say, ‘I could build these things for one third.’ We have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports.”
This is a point he has repeated. According to nymag.com of May 5, 2016, Trump said on CNBC’s Squawk Box, “Maybe my greatest strength is the economy, jobs, and building. We do have to rebuild our infrastructure.” The same source quotes Trump calling for a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan” which would be “one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken” and create 13 million jobs. It further quotes Trump’s book, Crippled America, as saying, “A few years ago, Moody’s. the financial investment agency, calculated that every $1 of federal money invested in improving the infrastructure for highways and public schools would generate $1.44 back to the economy. On the federal level, this is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay itself.”
Of course, as public transportation advocates know only too well, “infrastructure” could mean just highways. What has Trump said about rail? Time magazine of March 3, 2016 quoted Trump as saying some encouraging words:
In a freewheeling speech Thursday afternoon, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stumbled into a riff about how great trains are. It’s sad, he said, that the American rail system is so dilapidated while China’s is now slicker than ever.
“They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” the populist billionaire exclaimed, “We have trains that go chug…chug…chug.”
All this certainly is certainly more encouraging than anything said by any of the other Republican candidates. More, because Trump is a businessman, as President he might do what Democrats have shown they will not, namely put a cap on the explosive and unjustified escalation of building rail transit. We now see proposals for streetcar lines coming in at more than $100 million per mile, when they can be built for much less.
What is needed is a common business tool called “should cost” limits. In relation to transit, “should cost” means the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would set limits on the cost of building new rail transit lines, limits based on internationally-derived best practices. If a city wanted to pay more, it could, but all the money above the “should cost” figure would have to come from state or local resources. The feds would not pay for more than the line should cost. This would create a now-absent incentive for consultants and contractors to keep costs down.
Establishing FTA “should cost” limits is something a President with a business background would be more likely to do than would one with a previous career as a politician. Too often, politicians care only that the money go into the pockets of their political friends.
The current rapid escalation in rail transit costs threatens to put rail out of business. If, on the other hand, construction costs were to be forced downward, we could expand the amount of rail transit we could afford to build. From that perspective, President Trump might prove a better friend of transit than President Clinton.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC