I know the pendulum swings ever faster in America today, but really: Is it already time for “shovel-ready projects” to be back in style? From the Wall Street Journal:
“President Donald Trump pushed his White House team on Wednesday to craft a plan for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending that would pressure states to streamline local permitting, favor renovation of existing roads and highways over new construction and prioritize projects that can quickly begin construction.
“‘We’re not going to give the money to states unless they can prove that they can be ready, willing and able to start the project,’ Mr. Trump said at a private meeting with aides and executives that The Wall Street Journal was invited to observe. ‘We don’t want to give them money if they’re all tied up for seven years with state bureaucracy.’
“Mr. Trump said he would was inclined to give states 90 days to start projects, and asked Scott Pruitt, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to provide a recommendation.”
He didn’t use the term President Obama famously came to rue, but he might as well have. Let’s walk through this to understand exactly why Trump is the latest to fall into this trap.
Start with an acknowledgment there are infrastructure projects that would benefit this country. I detailed some of them in Georgia as the General Assembly two years ago debated and eventually passed a plan to raise almost $1 billion per year in new funding for roads and bridges. There’s also the well-known project to deepen the port at Savannah to handle larger cargo ships. Both the port and many of the road projects in Georgia would give a real boost to the transportation and logistics sectors of the economy. Some of them might even be accelerated with an infusion of federal spending, which might have some economic benefit (though, I would think, not as much benefit as building good projects that otherwise wouldn’t be built). I’m sure there are other examples in other states.
As Obama learned early in his own presidency, there simply aren’t a lot of infrastructure projects that can get under way within 90 days or anything like that, even if red tape were completely removed. (And contrary to Trump’s suggestion, federal red tape is generally a much bigger problem than “state bureaucracy.”) Almost certainly, there aren’t anything like $1 trillion worth of those projects. The main effect of dumping that kind of money all or even largely at once into the relative handful of projects that could be started quickly would be to drive up their cost. Why? Because the prices of scarce materials and labor would be rapidly bid higher by states trying to get their share of the “free” money before it ran out.
None of this ever seems to be borne in mind by politicians seeking to use infrastructure spending as a quick jolt to the economy. Infrastructure projects are, by their nature, long-term economic plays. That’s one reason they take a long time not only to build but to plan. Red tape adds to the time-frame, and should be reduced whenever possible, but doing so won’t put a vast number of shovels into the ground tomorrow. Nor should it, if we’re really trying to reap the biggest long-term bang for our buck.
But politicians don’t operate on such long time frames, because the next election is invariably closer than the completion date of the projects they want to fund — and claim the credit for when they run in those elections. It seems Trump is no exception.
(Then again, one wonders if Trump is truly committed to the quick-start requirement, given that, according to the Journal, he went on to name high-speed rail and “the Hyperloop, a project envisioned by Tesla founder Elon Musk that would rapidly transport passengers in pods through low-pressure tubes” as items that pique his interest.)
Election-induced haste is a big reason too much infrastructure spending turns out to be wasteful and inefficient. A smarter approach to infrastructure spending would be to set a longer process for selection, the better to make sure our money goes to the projects with the greatest ROI. Even if that might not yield results by November 2018, or 2020.