An Infrastructure Fix
President Dwight Eisenhower wrote his name in concrete by building the interstate highway system. President Donald Trump has made infrastructure one of his signature issues, perhaps because he too likes to write his name on big projects. If the new administration approaches the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure armed with some innovative ideas, it can do more than pour concrete. It can write President Trump’s name in history.
Infrastructure usually isn’t glitzy. Much of it, such as our water and sewer systems, should be neither seen nor heard—unless we’re talking about the Trumpian solid-gold toilet recently installed at the Guggenheim in New York (yes, you can use it). Much of the work our infrastructure needs is repair or replacement, which draws little public attention. Not even a vice president is likely to show up to cut a ribbon on 100 miles of resurfaced highway.
Yet infrastructure, especially transportation infrastructure, offers some opportunities that are huge, huge. They begin with addressing the long-standing problem that when federal and state governments speak of “transportation,” they usually mean “highways.” Call it the Trump Transportation Rebalancing Act.
Highways are favored over all other modes—rail, air, and water—to a degree that is shameful. All levels of government now subsidize highways to the tune of $70 billion annually, as revenue from gas taxes, fees, and tolls covers less than 50 percent of highway costs. The $42 billion we spend annually on the federal level for highways dwarfs what we spend on other transit: $11.8 billion. The latest transportation bill to pass Congress, the FAST (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation) Act of 2015, perpetuates the wide disparity through 2020.
President Trump has an opportunity to fix this. The market for travel options other than driving is there. Young people are less focused on cars than were previous generations. They want good public transportation, and they move to cities that offer it. Many of the people who voted for Donald Trump cannot afford to buy a new car, the average price of which now exceeds $33,000. The annual ownership cost of a car is estimated by AAA at $8,698. If public transportation allows a household to own fewer cars, the savings are, well, huge.
The left presents all public transportation as a service for the poor. But rail transit—commuter trains, subways, light rail, and streetcars—carry large numbers of people who vote Republican. They know that while time behind the wheel is wasted, they can work on the train. Few people who own a car will take a bus instead, but they will ride rail transit. From President Trump’s perspective, rail transit is transit “for us”—something that, as a New Yorker, he knows well.
People also want more intercity passenger trains, and better ones, too. Contrary to the critics’ talk of “empty trains,” Amtrak’s trains are often full to the point where would-be riders are turned away. Young people enjoy traveling by train. Older folks, whose vision and reflexes aren’t what they were, need trains; driving is no longer a safe option. Winter weather turns roads to sheets of ice, but the trains still run. Nor is Amtrak a big money-loser; it covers 70 to 75 percent of its operating costs from fares. And travel by train is one of the few nice things ordinary Americans, the people who elected Donald Trump, can still afford.
The Trump Transportation Rebalancing Act we envision begins by replacing the Highway Trust Fund with a Transportation Trust Fund. That includes Amtrak, finally giving it a reasonably predictable source of income beyond fares. Requests for road funding and transit funding get the same treatment. Both receive the same level of federal support as a percentage of the project’s cost. The time from conception to project completion is equalized so a rail transit line can be built as rapidly as a new road. Most importantly, the percentage of total federal transportation dollars going to highways and to other modes of travel is rebalanced toward the latter, giving us a transportation system for the 21st century, not the 1950s (as much as we prefer that decade in other ways).
That act should be followed by a Trump project for the ages: we’ll christen it the Trump Passenger Train Revival Act. Not many decades ago, you could go from anywhere to anywhere in America by train, safely, comfortably, reliably. President Trump brings those passenger trains back through a huge expansion of the Amtrak network. More trains are added to existing routes and more routes are added to the current skeletal network. The Northeast Corridor gets its due, including new tunnels under the Hudson in New York, but so does the rest of the country. Amtrak just got a superb new president, Wick Moorman, a former president and CEO of the Norfolk Southern Railway. He knows how to run a railroad, and he will use Amtrak’s new funds wisely.
The Passenger Train Revival Act is not about building high-speed rail. That will come in time, when demand justifies it. In every other country, high-speed rail lines have been constructed only when existing rail lines reached capacity. Building high-speed lines on routes that have had little or no passenger service in decades is a shot in the dark. President Trump’s new passenger trains run fast enough so that journey times are less than going by car. But high-speed rail is built only where the private sector is willing to fund it, as now appears to be the case in Texas between Dallas and Houston.
This act also challenges Amtrak with competition. Any private railroad that wants to run its own passenger trains again, rather than let Amtrak operate over its rails, can bid for a portion of Amtrak’s subsidy. As a businessman, President Trump understands that competition cuts costs and improves service.
Complementing President Trump’s Passenger Train Revival Act should be the Trump Streetcar Restoration Act. As a New Yorker, President Trump will not hate cities, as too many Republicans seem to do. He knows that for a region to be prosperous, the city at its core must boom. The decline of our cities may have begun when we ripped out the streetcars, which, unlike buses, people liked to ride. Now, all over the country, new streetcar lines are being built, and with them come billions of dollars in redevelopment. So President Trump brings the streetcars back.
This means more money for building streetcar lines. But if that money is to buy what it should, it also means a major reform in the way we fund streetcar (and light-rail) construction. At present, consultants and contractors are ripping the public off. They’ve got their hands into the till up to their elbows, pushing the price of streetcar and light-rail construction up far beyond what it should be. Streetcars are technologically simple, or they ought to be. The old ones were, and they worked fine. Now we see new lines projected at costs exceeding $100 million per mile, which is absurd.
The Trump Streetcar Restoration Act is therefore best accompanied by President Trump instructing the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to set “should cost” limits on streetcar and light-rail construction. These reflect best practices, surveyed on a worldwide basis, for keeping costs down. Final figures will require more study, but as starting points we suggest $25 million per mile for streetcar and $40 million per mile for light rail. If a city wants to spend more than that, fine. But it’s on its own nickel. The “should cost” figures are all FTA will fund. We expect “should cost” will bring soaring rail-transit construction costs back down to earth. The cheaper streetcar and light-rail lines are to build per mile, the more miles we can build.
These are Trumpian Big Ideas. But a few smaller ideas would help round out the Trump transportation program. Every city should be encouraged to designate a grid of streets, sufficient to go anywhere, as “Bicycles Only” in event of a gas shortage (which we can expect to have on occasion). What keeps many people from riding bikes on roads is fear of being hit by a car. Take the cars off the streets in that grid, except for local traffic, and people can go where they need to be on bicycles, safely. The plan could be exercised on holidays, giving people who may not normally cycle on roads a chance to experiment. If they like it and come out in growing numbers, more bike lanes can be built for them, or some streets might be permanently designated “Bicycles Only.”
One of the most inefficient mandates ever laid on public transportation is the Americans With Disabilities Act. It has forced transit agencies to spend millions of dollars on facilities that, in many cases, are seldom if ever used. The handicapped lobby insists that cost can be no object in their quest to create a world where handicapped people can live as if they were not handicapped. Sorry, but no one has a right to as much tax money as they want. ADA should be reformed to take costs into account. The law has been in place long enough to see which of the facilities it mandates are used and which are not. Requirements for the latter should be scrapped, and limits should be set on what percentage of a transit agency’s budget can be spent to provide special services. Uber and Lyft hold great potential to provide handicapped service at a much lower cost.
Some of the above proposals will save money; on net, the package will cost money. Where is that money to come from? From raising the gas tax. The federal gas tax should be the primary if not the only source of funding for the Transportation Trust Fund.
But there is a way to raise the gas tax that might actually benefit people who drive. As we are seeing at present, when gas prices fall, people stop buying fuel-efficient cars and stock up on SUVs and trucks that get poor gas mileage. Then, when gas prices shoot up, they find they can’t afford to fill the tank. The Cadillac Escalade gets parked and they are back to riding the bus.
We propose that the Trump gas tax should work like this. First, the administration announces that the price of gas—not the tax—will go up by so much per year. Let’s say a quarter per gallon. The tax rises or falls however much is necessary to deliver gas at that price. People would know what the price of gas is going to do when they buy a car. When you are on a budget, predictability is important. Of course, gas prices may fluctuate somewhat because of local factors, and the market could drive prices up so far and fast the tax could not be cut enough to compensate. But in normal times, the Trump gas tax should make gas prices predictable while raising new revenue.
As we said at the beginning, beyond transportation, infrastructure isn’t sexy. But when it comes to two vital networks, water and electric power, national security should lead President Trump to take action. At present, both the power and the water system throughout the country depend on computers. That makes them vulnerable to hacking and to electromagnetic-pulse (EMP) or other directed energy attacks. The latter can come from natural as well as human sources. Water is more important than power. If tens of millions of Americans’ homes and communities have no water, with none in prospect, most quickly become refugees.
Our water and power systems, especially the former, need manual backups. Just a few decades ago, they were run without computers. The people who know how to do that are mostly still alive. We need to learn from them how they did it before their knowledge is lost. Then, we need to game major, widespread system disruptions and determine how we cope with them. If President Trump wanted a big program to make Americans secure where they live, he might consider drilling a hand-pumped well for every urban and suburban residential block. That would be the best insurance he could buy us, and would put lots of folks to work as well.
President Hoover has Hoover Dam, FDR has the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Ike has the interstate highway system. Each is a memorial to a president who wanted to do something big. The opportunities are there for President Trump to do the same. Short of building a pyramid, infrastructure offers him the best opportunity to put his name up in lights.
William S. Lind is the director, and Glen D. Bottoms the executive director, of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.