Don’t Waste the Chance to Get Infrastructure Right

Brian McNicoll
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Posted: Dec 14, 2016 12:01 AM
Don’t Waste the Chance to Get Infrastructure Right

Even at the height of the presidential campaign, when charges and counter-charges flew back and forth like hungry crows, the candidates agreed on one thing – if they were elected, they would enact a massive program to rebuild America’s infrastructure.

It’s good news for those in construction that Trump won, but only because his plan is more ambitious. He hates America’s airports – he’s called LaGuardia, his home airport, “a third-world dump” – and he seems poised to direct billions to upgrade these facilities from coast to coast. But it would have happened either way, and the concerns of limited government types notwithstanding, the time is right.

Commentators talk about how Republicans suddenly find themselves embracing Keynesian economics and believing again that government infrastructure spending could spark economic revival. But they miss the point. Trump wants to rebuild because the nation needs to be rebuilt. Whatever economic benefits accrue and whatever increased confidence communities develop for having been revitalized in this way are mere side effects.

Since the last boom, which coincided with construction of the Interstate highway system in the 1950s and ‘60s, infrastructure spending as a share of GDP has declined to about half the level of European countries. America, one of the most car-dependent nations on earth, spends as much as a share of GDP as does Sweden, which relies heavily on mass transit.

Meanwhile, most of America’s public facilities – from parks and golf courses to schools, highways, bridges and wastewater treatment plants – date to the last two binges, which came during the Great Depression and after World War II.

Many of the projects in the first wave have been renovated or retooled or now sit in dire need of such. Many of those in the second wave were designed to last 50-60 years … 50-60 years ago.

That’s why Trump is for all manner of infrastructure spending. He’s for highway, bridge, tunnel and other transportation construction, as well as spending to expand the grids of both communications and energy and harden them against cyberattacks and to shore up and secure aging drinking water systems around the country.

Given history shows America does not frequently go on infrastructure spending binges, it’s important we get this right.

Trump seems to have the right mindset for it. In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump tells a story of when he was building Trump Tower. “Our façade was a glass curtail wall, which is far more expensive than brick,” Trump wrote. “We were using the most expensive glass you can buy – bronze solar. My father took one look at it and said, ‘Why don’t you forget about the damn glass? Give them four or five stories of it, then use common brick for the rest. Nobody is going to look up anyway.”

But Trump always has wanted his brands to be associated with thorough quality, so he rejected the suggestion and used the glass all the way to the top. He needs to do the same with this.

It’s not the vitality of his brands at stake here but his success as a president and ours as a nation. If you’re going to do this – if you’re going to spend more than $1 trillion on these projects with the nation already $20 trillion in debt – you need to do it so it lasts. And that means the best materials from top to bottom.

For example, water projects, which figure to be a major recipient of funds in Trump’s program, are expensive and disruptive, and it’s important they not have to be redone in short order. That means no shortcuts, which means choosing high-quality materials that will last a generation or more. Given its track record and 100-plus-year life expectancy (which is 2 to 3 times longer than comparative piping materials such as PVC), modern Ductile Iron Pipe would be the type of material that should be used by water utilities across the country when they revitalize with dollars from the Trump infrastructure program.

Republicans in Congress can set the tone for this early when they take up the Water Resources Development Act. They need to insist only the best materials be used to ensure the dollars and lifespan of these improvements go as far as possible.

What voters told us on Nov. 8 is they are ready for a break with the past. They want government that works and keeps on working. They know infrastructure is not free and that it makes sense to buy the best materials now rather than having to beg for emergency funds to correct mistakes later.

It would be a good step toward rebuilding trust in government if the infrastructure that gets built during the coming binge actually works and lives up to expectations. As the president-elect’s own language on infrastructure investment states, we have a "golden opportunity" to “develop a long-term water infrastructure plan with city, state and federal leaders to upgrade aging water systems.”

To not take advantage of this opportunity by using materials that may not stand the test of time would seem to be shortsighted at best.

Because Fred Trump was right; not everybody looks up. But everybody understands the importance of doing the job right the first time.