Talking About Infrastructure

Investigators looking into the Amtrak derailment that killed three people last month have yet to determine why the train was going 80 miles per hour on a tight curve where the speed limit was 30. However, the separate question of why that curve was there in the first place may already have been solved.

According to a Wall Street Journal report after the accident, original plans for that stretch of track called for eliminating the turn, thereby allowing trains to safely go through at high speed. But that would have cost about $412 million — more than double the project’s budget — so authorities opted for lowering the speed limit rather than raising the cost.

It can be persuasively argued that to a certain degree, the three people who died were victims of the nation’s failure to provide localities with the necessary funding for renovation and rebuilding. Had such a program been in place, it is possible that the curve would have been straightened and the accident avoided.

In any case, it served to refocus attention onto the subject of infrastructure, and it was on the minds of President Donald Trump and the Republican congressional leaders at Camp David during their meeting last weekend. They met to reconnoiter the legislative lay of the land for 2018, and infrastructure was high on the agenda. President Trump himself has made the connection to Amtrak.

The administration intends to present an outline in the next few days, though it emerged at the weekend retreat that the basic strategy — notably, whether it will call for public/private partnership — is still at the drawing-board phase. Mr. Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was reportedly advocating a $200 billion spending initiative that would trigger almost $1 trillion in private, local and state spending. The president is said to be wary of the approach.

Meanwhile, officials in New York and New Jersey are counting on federal help. The plan for a $12.7 billion Gateway commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River calls for Washington to pay half.

Currently, federal officials are disputing that such a commitment exists, casting doubt over a project that is considered vital to the regional economy. As Gateway chairman Richard Bagger put it recently: “There is no plan B. It has to be a federal-local partnership and we are confident that it will be.”

Actually, infrastructure should be an easy sell. It’s not just a matter of averting disaster, economic and literal. The jobs created by major construction work will stimulate the economy. “If you are replacing a bridge, that creates even more economic activity for the long term and more spending and more jobs,” said Michael Materasso, senior vice president of Franklin Templeton’s Fixed Income Policy Committee. It’s an investment that will more than pay for itself in time.

He also noted that there are still plenty of “shovel-ready” projects tied to rebuilding efforts in Texas and Florida after last year’s hurricanes. (Who said “shovel-ready” jobs are a myth?) A safer, more efficient transportation system will also likely spur economic growth, simply because workers could spend less time commuting and more time working.

For decades, infrastructure has been like the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Still, it looks like this administration, fresh from its success on tax reform, will indeed take on the challenge of renewing America’s infrastructure in the coming year.

There is no other major issue about which there exists such a broad consensus. Everyone recognizes that the country’s bridges, roads, tunnels and ports are disintegrating. Every state in the union has its long list of projects crying out for funding, budgetary orphans all.

Despite the seemingly politician-friendly, bipartisan nature of infrastructure spending, the reasons it hasn’t happened during all these years have not gone away. The multi-billion dollar price tags have been anathema to budget conservatives; the notion of piling on debt-financed investments into the future causes nightmares.

In the case of the Trump administration, which in 2016 promised infrastructure spending, it has had its hands full with Obamacare, the tax cut and a few other distractions. Perhaps now, while Republicans maintain a majority in both houses, the opportunity will be seized. Unlike the weather, something can be done about infrastructure, and indeed must be done.

It will take an administration that knows what it wants, and a focused, determined Congress that will not allow domestic politics and foreign policy crises to distract it from the rebuilding on which much of the future of the country depends.

And it is time for both parties to put their bridges, tunnels and ports where their mouths are.