Could Trump Infrastructure Spending Fund Positive Transportation Solutions?

Knoxville Skyline, October 2016
Knoxville Skyline, October 2016

If nothing else, it can be said that President Trump is aggressively pursuing his goals. Most of what he has done to this point lines up with what he promised during the campaign and shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who were paying attention. Of course, this makes a percentage of us happy and another percentage unhappy.

One of the longer-term promises of the administration is to invest in a major way on infrastructure. No one really knows what this means. We would likely easily agree as a nation that our bridges and highways need attention. But infrastructure can include much more than roads and bridges. It should include a new water system in Flint, Michigan, for example.

And what about mass transportation? Is it possible that pro-business conservatives and pro-environment progressives can find common ground around transportation alternatives which are both good for business and good for the environment? Maybe it’s only a glimmer of hope, but it’s conceivable.

Edward L. Glaeser, writing for CNBC in an article entitled, “Here’s Who Should Really Pay for Trump’s New Roads,” makes a range of points. He argues that our infrastructure conversation shouldn’t be about more or less, but about better infrastructure. He advocates having more local control over expenditures and more funding to be derived from the users of whatever infrastructure we build. He, for example, suggests that tolls for roads would be a sensible way to find out if a local population really wants a new road. He makes a distinction between roads and mass transit, pointing out that each additional user of mass transit actually reduces cost and congestion. If given local control – and perhaps some federal dollars – it seems that cities would be inclined toward progressive solutions.

Train Tracks, Knoxville in the Snow, February 13, 2014

On the railway front, there is also reason for hope. The Brightline Railway, a privately owned company, is set to begin construction for passenger rail from Orlando to Miami and recently revealed it’s first high speed train. A Politico story earlier this month noted that “Republicans Embrace Amtraks Gulf Coast Rebirth,” amid efforts by Amtrak to restore what was lost in hurricane Katrina and establish rail service from New Orleans to Orlando. Seeing it as an economic necessity in an era when the population is aging and more people are choosing not to drive, they plan to make a push for funding this spring.

My hometown, Mobile, Alabama, never accused of having the slightest progressive streak, also gets a mention in the article and it’s pretty surprising – and encouraging. “Stimpson, the Mobile mayor, wants to use a recently awarded $14.5 million federal grant to pay for bike lanes, crosswalks and other features to help connect a low-income neighborhood to jobs at the city’s aviation manufacturing hub, with any leftover money possibly going to efforts to construct a downtown trail system. The main thoroughfare that flanks the eastern edge of Mobile’s downtown and hugs its river would shrink from six traffic lanes to four, making room for bike lanes and walkways to eliminate what the mayor calls a “psychological barrier” keeping citizens away from the waterfront.”

Vol Line Trolley, Knoxville, August 2014

Canada, of course, has a much more progressive government and they are shifting billions in infrastructure funding from highway expansion to mass transit. They are doing so as a part of a commitment to fight climate change and so our governments differ there, but what if we got to a similar place via a different pro-business, efficiency approach? Is it possible?

Last month the Texas Tribune reported that bus ridership surged in Houston after that city made a major commitment to upgrading buses, stops and services. Dallas is looking to implement similar changes and the same article suggests they are talking about removing roads and making a more walkable center city. They have ninety miles of commuter rail and an additional connection between Dallas and Fort Worth. Again, these are hardly centers of liberal thought.

Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Skyline, 2014

Already attempting to sway the president to consider good expenditures and projects which really do enhance our cities and towns, Wired offered a list just a couple of weeks after the election of a dozen projects they feel get it right, suggesting Trump should pay attention to them as examples of what could be done. The Strong Towns web page took the opposite tact, listing five ways traditional federal infrastructure spending makes cities worse off – from unfunded, decades-long maintenance on. For those of you interested in provocative takes on urban issues, Strong Towns is a good source.

So, that brings us back to the fact that we don’t know what will happen, if anything, regarding the infrastructure spending. At the least, we all need to be equipped, should we be given a voice, to advocate for expenditures which do not become a burden to future generations, for infrastructure which doesn’t worsen climate change and which promotes healthy lifestyles. It’s a small part of the many issues facing our country, but it’s perhaps one that can have a positive outcome. If not, we will be damaged for generations if the expenditures are large and devoted to unsustainable infrastructure.