This is not what the Trump administration infrastructure plan looks like.
Adobe Stock/Tierney This is not what the Trump administration infrastructure plan looks like.

State and local governments own and maintain most of the nation’s infrastructure. They always have and they always will. The fastest and easiest way to help them keep people safe and healthy is to increase the federal fuel tax. States that have done so because they got tired of waiting (most recent federal increase: 1993) can pass the wealth down to counties and cities, which can apply funds they planned to spend on streets, roads, and bridges to equally pressing needs, like replacing old water pipes and separating combined sewer systems.

The White House plan doesn’t do that.

Instead, it gives them (in grants, not loans) $100 billion with which to lure private partners into helping foot the bill for building and/or restoring assets. The federal government facilitates matchmaking by doing things like (surprise, surprise) eliminating the tax on private activity bonds (PABs) and allowing them to maintain the tax-exempt status of assets built using government bonds (!). Water, sewer, stormwater, flood control, brownfield, and Superfund projects (local government would be exempt from all liability) are eligible for the Incentives Program.

I appreciate the recognition that infrastructure is more than roads and bridges, but the administration sure is eager to unload assets (and liability) on to state and local governments. They can use Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovative Act (WIFIA) funds to deliver U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) water resource projects and the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF) and U.S. Treasury General Fund (GF) to take over USACE projects that have languished for years. You can also sign a 50-year operations and/or maintenance contract with USACE, but would a city council or other governing body sign off on that? (This account says the proposal flips the 80/20 federal/local funding formula, requiring states and cities to contribute at least $4 for every $1 they receive.)

Remember, the White House can recommend whatever it wants. It’s up to Congress to hammer out the details, so the administration can shift blame for any shortcomings onto our other elected leaders. But no matter how what the incentives are, expecting the private sector to pick up the slack isn’t realistic. Despite their whining, taxpayers usually resist relinquishing control over public assets; and press coverage of spectacular failures isn’t likely to make them change that attitude.

I don’t think Washington has a clue how much public-private partnering happens on the local level, mutually beneficial arrangements made to ensure mutual survival. The days when local jurisdictions could count on help from above are long gone, and companies know it. Many public projects, the ones that mean so much to the people living and working in a particular community, that aren't big, sexy, national headline-grabbing news, aren’t delivered unless the local business community pitches in, whether it’s with in-kind contributions, funding for maintenance and/or operations, or outright cash. They're like millions of American voters who’ve increased their own taxes over the last decade so their roads are drivable and their water drinkable.

I’m not saying anything about the suggestions for streamlining project permitting except to ask … does it make sense to start relocating utilities when you don’t what the potential consequences are?

Click here if you feel up to reading the entire plan.
Click here for an excellent synopsis.

And click here to learn about an event we're holding in November on how contractors and the engineering community can help public agencies deliver projects faster and less expensively without compromising public health and safety. It's called the Infrastructure Imperative. No one knows better than you how imperative our nation's public works are.