Democrats will almost certainly fight it tooth and nail, but President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan is actually surprisingly progressive. Or at least it has the potential to be if it can survive Congress without morphing into a multibillion-dollar, deficit-financed cash giveaway.
Based on a leaked draft and the few details Mr. Trump offered in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, the plan involves $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending with about $200 billion coming directly from the federal government and the rest from state, local and private investment.
Projects would be capped at 20 percent in federal funds, with the remaining 80 percent coming from other sources.
That’s sure to infuriate Democrats and Republicans alike in states and cities that have relied on federal money to fuel wasteful, counterproductive and expensive infrastructure efforts for decades. But it’s for their own good.
The whole purpose of investing in infrastructure is to increase value. Streets connect homes to businesses. Electric cables light cities. Sewers keep places clean and clear away stormwater.
We need those things. And when they’re built the right way, they increase economic prosperity and quality of life for the residents and businesses that depend on them. Those benefits outweigh the costs.
But too often, our infrastructure doesn’t pay for itself. Roads, in particular, tend to generate a negative return on investment when they’re too large or complex for the communities that they serve.
With a more or less steady stream of federal funding, however, cities and states have had little incentive to consider the true costs of unwise infrastructure development. Mr. Trump’s plan could help shift that balance by forcing local governments — and local taxpayers — to put more skin in the game.
Charleston County and, to a somewhat lesser extent, South Carolina already have.
Charleston County voters have passed two sales tax increases for transportation in recent years, both of which smartly prioritize incremental improvements, public transit and greenbelt funding over megaprojects like extending I-526.
South Carolina legislators passed a landmark gas tax increase last summer that is designed to shore up crumbling roads and bridges rather than expand the state’s already ridiculously overlarge highway network.
We’re in a good position to meet Mr. Trump’s requirements and make sensible investments. But again, building value should be the goal. And sometimes that means counterintuitive solutions.
Narrowing streets to add amenities like bike lanes, landscaping and sidewalks, along with other traffic calming measures — rather than wider, faster roads — can raise property values, improve public safety and boost quality of life without dramatically increasing car travel times, for example.
Small-scale solar farms can power communities more cleanly and cheaply than a megaproject like the $9 billion nuclear reactors outside of Columbia that will never generate a single watt of electricity.
Effective public transit can do more to speed morning commutes than another lane of highway.
And Charleston is going to need billions in flood prevention and mitigation improvements that no one is quite sure how to pay for. But tapping the city’s 6 million annual tourists is a sensible place to start — at least if state lawmakers give the city the flexibility to do so.
Infrastructure is expensive, and federal funding is critical to getting things moving at the state and local levels. But easy money has too often turned into easy solutions that generate short-term benefits and long-term burdens.
It would be simple enough for Mr. Trump to propose a massive trillion-dollar handout. It would probably be popular too.
But the funding would eventually dry up. And cities and states would be left with the same thing they have too often been left with in the past — expensive, unnecessary infrastructure that will never pay for itself or generate real value.
In other words, President Trump’s infrastructure plan isn’t stingy or cruel. It’s a push for communities to invest in the future, build stronger cities and become more resilient. It’s what we should have been doing all along.