What Will it Take to Rebuild America?
hen President Trump declared, in his first speech to Congress, "The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding," the applause was loud and long. This pledge to spend what it takes to fix roads and bridges, rails and broadband, dams and airports--a staple of his campaign speeches--struck a chord with public opinion. The legacy of past generations that sustained the world's largest economy is aging and needs repair. Some 34 million Americans still lack access to broadband. The electrical grid can't keep up with advances in renewable energy. People understand this: a recent poll for CNN found that 79% of Americans want the President to increase spending on infrastructure, including 72% of people who say they don't support Donald Trump. His commitment was music to the ears of Wall Street and Main Street, and charmed labor as well as management. America is suffering from a massive infrastructure deficit--crumbling and dilapidated roads, bridges, airports, and tunnels," Trump said in a statement to TIME. "We need members of both parties--partnering with industry and workers--to join together to repair, rebuild and renew the infrastructure of the United States."
So if everyone agrees, if the need is great and the will is there, if America's very quality of life is at stake, as well as safety, jobs and economic competitiveness, then one would think that this is where all of Washington has a chance to step up. An embattled President could prove whether his record as a developer is relevant; Republicans in Congress could practice governing; Democrats could deliver long-promised results. Everyone wins.
Does the President actually have a plan?
Trump's staff has identified a few priorities, like broadband and the electrical grid, that require significant federal investment. His $1 trillion plan will include, officials say, between $100 billion and $200 billion of actual taxpayer money for projects like these. But the bulk of Trump's promise is contained in the theoretical tsunami of money in private hands supposedly waiting for regulatory reform. While nonpartisan experts agree that America's permitting process is too cumbersome, Trump's team is an outlier in thinking that faster approvals will have such a staggering effect. You might ask: How much of this plan has to do with infrastructure, and how much is part of the war--as White House strategist Steve Bannon calls it--on the "administrative state"?
Younger economies around the world have leapfrogged us in building state-of-the-art works, while our infrastructure is showing its age. Trump frames the issue with his characteristic colorful hyperbole. "You come in from Dubai and Qatar and you see these incredible--you come in from China, you see these incredible airports," he says, "we've become a third-world country." As a younger nation, we built on a heroic scale, creating instantly recognizable monuments to dynamism and energy. Grand Central Terminal. The Chicago "L." The TWA terminal at Kennedy International Airport. The endless ribbon of interstate highway. The Golden Gate Bridge. Sadly, we've discovered that building such projects is more glorious than maintaining them.
Two hundred years ago, the governor of New York convinced the state legislature to dig a canal from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. A boondoggle, people scoffed.
A vision leads to a project, which leads to the future.
[A few specific areas for improvement:]
America is ripe for major investment in infrastructure. But making it pay off will require not just addressing the funding gaps but also fundamentally redesigning the country’s approach. McKinsey’s research suggests that every well-spent dollar of infrastructure investment would raise GDP by 20¢ in the long run–if deployed correctly. These four steps could help: 1. FOCUS ON THE OUTCOMES
2. ESTABLISH A CLEAR POINT OF ACCOUNTABILITY WITHIN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
3. EMPOWER STATE AND LOCAL EXPERIMENTS
4. ATTRACT MORE PRIVATE-SECTOR FUNDING
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