On Infrastructure, The Little Things Count Too

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Peter Roff Contributor
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During the 2016 campaign Donald Trump had plenty of examples to site when he talked about the need to rebuild the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure.” And, like him or not, he wasn’t wrong. To name just two, most major airports are overcrowded nightmares and the interstate highway system, which needs constant repair just to maintain the status quo, will need to be expanded to accommodate the traffic springing forth from commercial and residential growth in the exurbs.

There are things the administration can and even has done like streamlining and consolidating the permitting process between federal agencies that should speed up the time it takes to get a project to the “shovel ready” stage but it’s still Congress where most all the transportation decisions will be made and which will decide, even if Trump’s dream of public-private partnerships on major projects comes to pass, what gets built and where.

That, for whatever it’s worth, means a whole lot of negotiation about transportation policy must occur before anything can get built. It’s not just a matter of figuring out where to put an off ramp, what bridge to fix, and which tunnel to reinforce. Congress needs to consider what the nation’s future infrastructure needs to look like. There are a lot of options from which to choose and powerful interests behind each.

Take parcel shipping: In the e-commerce age it’s become extremely important. People don’t go shopping at the mall anymore. They depend on people to brings things to them. So far so good, but there’s a lot that goes into determining just how that package that ended up on your front stoop got to the guy or gal who put it there.

There’s a vigorous debate underway right now between the operators of short line railroads and long-haul truckers, both of whom are heavily into the parcel delivery business. The truckers want a change in the 1982 law that sets the maximum load and length for twin trailer trucks to allow for slightly longer trailers that can carry more than is now allowed. The folks who move freight by short-line rail are concerned this will lead to increased competition (and a decrease in their share of the shipping business) even though independent industry analysts say the proposed change will have little to no impact.

Both sides have powerful friends on Capitol Hill and are backed in their lobbying efforts by an impressive array of law firms, lobby shops, and trade associations. Which means any decision may still be a long way off, as will one concerning the short-rail industry’s request for a permanent extension of its temporary tax credit (which the truckers do not oppose) it argues it needs to remain competitive.

Leaving aside for a second the fact the railroads are asking for Uncle Sam to protect them from future competition and for what is in effect a subsidy, the failure of Congress to resolve this issue has a direct impact on the infrastructure debate. Should investments be directed to roads or rails? The failure to allow for the extension of twin trailers by just a few feet without any change in the maximum weight allowed means more trucks on the road, increased congestion, and greater wear and tear on America’s highways and byways.

Debates over policies like these could be dismissed as nothing more than legislative noise. There’s more to it than that. The minutiae of policies like this one are at the core of the entire infrastructure debate. Whether Congress shows a preference for roads over rails is as important – to infrastructure – as whether sub-space supersonic transport taking passengers from Washington to Tokyo in less time than it now takes to get from the nation’s capital to the west coast will have considerable impact on what we do with our airports.

Congress isn’t going to stop allocating funding for roads or rail and will try, until someone decides the private sector may know how to do things better and cheaper, to direct the public-private partnerships the president seems to believe are the right cure for our infrastructure ills. What gets built must be designed and constructed with the future in mind rather than the past. Washington doesn’t need to be picking winners and losers and they don’t need to be offering protection to domestic industries from domestic competitors. There’s lots more than one industry at stake: there’s lots of dollars at stake and lots of jobs too. If everyone needs to be made happy before anything moves, then nothing will ever get built. The president needs to take a whip hand to the matter and get things moving so America can get moving once again.

Washington-based commentator Peter Roff is former senior political writer for United Press International and former contributing editor for opinion at U.S. News and World Report.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.