Opinion: Trump resurrects … ‘shovel-ready projects’?

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.

Construction continues on the Northwest Corridor managed lanes. (AJC Photo / Bob Andres)

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.

But.

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.

Reader Comments 0

27 comments
Starik
Starik

How do you build infrastructure quickly without using the labor of "illegal" immigrants?

Pub Heaven
Pub Heaven

High speed rail and Hyperloop, in 90 days!!

Get this child some Legos.

TheCentrist
TheCentrist

Socially conservative Georgia has spent 20-plus years and at least $100 million in infrastructure planning, studies and prioritizing, and when Obama said, let's do it...social conservatives obstructed and Georgia...Failed, and all we got are a few projects and a toll road, and Obama was blamed.


45 says, let do it...Nothing but excuses...Again.

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

@TheCentrist


Even when both parties agree we have become so polarized we can't get nothing done.


Unfortunately I don't see this president as being fiscally responsible. Spend baby spend.

Libertylover
Libertylover

If Obama proposed this (oh wait, he did), the Trumpsters would have been rightfully screaming. We need more loyalty to principle and common sense and less to one man.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

Spot on Kyle.  Haste makes waste, as someone once said.  Better to work on identifying the projects and doing proper vetting before committing a $1 Trillion dollars. Otherwise the money may be spent on low priority ideas and gone when really needed projects surface. He would be better off, trying to raise all this money, while the projects are ID'd and vetted. 

TheCentrist
TheCentrist

@RafeHollister 58,000 bridges in the US are classified as structurally deficient of which 2,600 are in Georgia.  Rather than just debating campus carry, preachers' rights, anti-gay, gerrymandering, social conservatives could have spent at least prioritizing infrastructure projects.


Instead, we get toll roads, while projects like high speed rail, outer perimeter, and repairs are obstructed or not even discussed by a legislature that is dominated by rural social conservatives who act like crabs in a barrel.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

@Hedley_Lammar Funny, the proggies never thought much of Russian threats, when Reagan was taking them on or Obama was waffling on doing anything about their aggression.  


Now they are all Attila the Hun like over Russian aggression.  Amazing how pretzel like you can become, when there is a chance to advance your agenda.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

@Hedley_Lammar I sure hope that's true but don't hold out much hope coming from very fake news cnn.


But you are welcome to cut your own throats, if you'd like.

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

Trump doesn't care about ROI or smart infrastructure spending. He just wants to boost job creation so that he boast about being the jobs president.


A trillion dollars. Alot of crooks already trying to get a piece of that pie.

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

@AndyManUSA#45 @McGarnagle


Obama intentions was to boost the economy during the great recession. Whats Trumps intentions? Economy is already trending upwards. Trump just wants to spend for the hell of it.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

@McGarnagle @AndyManUSA#45 obama's intentions were to steal the money and redistribute it to his community "organizing" minions. How do I know this, because nothing was ever built but the minions grew exponentially. 


President Trump wants the jobs, as you will soon find out.



Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@AndyManUSA#45 @McGarnagle

 nothing was ever built

I guess I imagined those road resurfacing projects that I drove on at either end of my commute.

Or maybe you're lying, again? yeah, that's the safer bet.

AndyManUSA#45
AndyManUSA#45

Agree with stogiefogey below, my municipality has over $100,000,000 planned out just waiting for the money. I'm also pretty sure that when President Trump says "start," it could also mean design.

DeepStateDawg
DeepStateDawg

Kyle, interesting discussion on Fresh Air today about Bannon and Sessions.... you should get into some of that. 


They're hoping we're ignoring all that, but the upshot is that their unfortunate vision of America, which they're actually executing on, is much more "Andy Griffith" and much less "Fresh Off The Boat", if you know what I mean. 


MAWA!

Caius
Caius

In 1981 a Republican President and a Democratic Speaker sat around the Oval Office and decided we could: 1.balance the budget by 2.  reducing government revenue, and 3. increase government spending. Twenty trillion dollars in national debt later we are gonna continue the program.

Republicans cut Obama's trlllion $$ down to about 780 billion $$ as I recall. Will republicans remain fiscally responsible or cave?


Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

How does Trump propose to pay for all this spending ?


By cutting taxes ?


The old GOP line was cut taxes for the wealthy. Give them more money and the economy will explode. Which will increase revenue for the Govt.


But i'm not sure they can sell that to the American people again.

Here's_to_Blue
Here's_to_Blue

@Hedley_Lammar Toll roads and other public/private partnerships, doncha know?  With 50- to 75-year leases whereby private companies can charge any amount they want for those tolls and rake in taxpayer dollars.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@Hedley_Lammar

Some bond scheme that screws most Americans and enriches a tiny circle of Trump-buddies? That's what I've been hearing.

stogiefogey
stogiefogey

Kyle still trying to rationalize the "anti-Trump partisan" stance even while DJT is doing a fantastic job unwinding eight years of bad government is like watching Wile E. Coyote over the edge of the cliff suspended in midair.

And yes, 90 days is plenty of time for states to get infrastructure work underway. Most, like Georgia, probably have a list of backlogged projects that are ready to go now.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

@stogiefogey even while DJT is doing a fantastic job


You and that sentiment dont have much company. In fact just reading it made me spit out my coffee.

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

I agree, but are you sure that the waste is a bug instead of a feature?  His M.O. is to get investors then extract money by paying himself a big salary.  Given that we don't really need any stimulus, it could just be payment to friends Russia style (joke).


I'm not against the spending, because we need it.  Our internet and transportation systems are second rate.  I simply hope Trump actually wants to help.


Obama's shovel ready jobs deal was a mixed bag, but it did provide some value and many of the projects launched in later years as you said.  Admittedly, it wasn't the best part of the overall stimulus package.

bu22
bu22

@JFMcNamara The problem is we needed immediate stimulus and Obama merely threw money at his priorities while ignoring the immediate economic pressure.