Let’s make America’s roads, bridges great again

The Observer editorial board

More public-private toll projects like Interstate 77 could be coming under Donald Trump.
More public-private toll projects like Interstate 77 could be coming under Donald Trump. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

If Donald Trump’s said it once this year, he’s said it a million times: He’s going to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and tunnels. He’s going to spend $1 trillion over 10 years to make our infrastructure great again.

He’s got a point. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D-plus; the group is calling for $3.6 trillion in investment by 2020. Not likely.

Here in North Carolina we’ve seen what happens when federal and state transportation dollars shrink. You wind up with Cintra, the Spanish construction firm, building toll lanes in north Mecklenburg for residents who furiously insist they deserve free publicly financed lanes instead.

And that’s the problem we see with Trump’s infrastructure plan, which the president-elect labels a priority for his first 100 days in office.

He’s not calling for a massive infusion of tax dollars to finance it. Instead, he’s looking for public-private partnerships with firms like Cintra, which would be lured in with tax credits totaling 82 percent of the project equity.

Such public-private partnerships have merit. But the Interstate 77 toll road saga suggests just how tough it might be to sell to a toll-averse public on a toll-driven national plan.

Some experts also rightly question whether much-needed road and bridge repairs would go lacking as private firms jockey for more lucrative toll projects building new roads and bridges. Then there’s the fact that these huge public-private infrastructure deals have already shown themselves vulnerable to corruption.

We can’t even be sure that private operators won’t declare bankruptcy and walk away if toll revenues don’t meet projections – a persistent concern raised by north Mecklenburg critics of Cintra’s toll lanes.

It’s not hard to see why many transportation experts are skeptical of the heavy private-sector focus of Trump’s plan.

No doubt, a big infrastructure plan makes sense. Interest rates are low, the need is high, and the Associated General Contractors of America says such a plan could spin off tens of thousands of manufacturing, mining and service-sector jobs as construction suppliers and equipment makers meet rising demand for their products.

But private dollars should complement public dollars, not replace them as the spine of such a plan. And where would this massive influx of tax money come from?

President Obama has already offered at least one perfectly reasonable idea: taxing the nearly $2 trillion in foreign earnings on which loophole-loving U.S. corporations escape taxation.

Republicans shot Obama’s idea down. Some GOP leaders remain cool to a big infrastructure spend, even from Trump. And Democrats hate his focus on tax credits.

Still, we hear the president-elect’s a wily deal-maker. Here’s his chance to prove it.