By Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s been a whirlwind since Donald Trump became President. Some might even say a tornado.
Many believed (including myself) that he couldn’t win. I was wrong. Some also believed (again, including myself) that he wouldn’t make good on his campaign promises. So far, he has.
While I usually don’t like being wrong, if there’s one thing I couldn’t be happier being wrong about, it’s President Trump’s promises to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.
So, what can the construction industry expect under our first developer-turned-POTUS, Donald Trump, who is arguably the most exciting President for the construction industry since FDR?
Where We Are Today
The American Society of Engineers, in its oft-cited infrastructure “Report Card,” gave nation’s infrastructure an overall grade of D+, with an estimated investment infusion of $3.6 trillion needed by 2020 just to keep the nation’s infrastructure in “good” (note, not “great”) repair.
Source: 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers
This includes the country’s airports, which President Trump has previously said “are like from a Third World country,” vast network of transportation systems, energy generation, waste disposal and water purification plants, as well as schools, parks, levees and dams (the Oroville Dam crisis being a recent, and potentially devastating, example).
Even the federal government is broadly in agreement. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nation’s drinking water treatment and distribution systems need $348 billion in investments over the next 20 years. Over half of America’s public schools need to be repaired, renovated or modernized according to the U.S. Department of Education. And nearly 20 percent of the country’s roads, according to the Federal Highway Administration, are in “poor” condition.
Why We Are Where We Are
The U.S. “infrastructure gap” as it has been called, is the result of decades of deferred maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure systems, many of which were built in the golden era of American capitalism following World War II.
Not surprisingly, these are costly systems not only to build but also to maintain. And, frankly, we don’t have a lot of extra pocket change between our seat cushions. While it’s true that the federal deficit has been shrinking since its high of $1.9 trillion in 2009 to $587 billion in 2016, the federal debt, the culmination of yearly deficits (of which there are many) and surpluses (which there are few), has been steadily increasing since 1981 and currently stands at $19.98 trillion as of 2016.
Source: The Federal Budget in 2016, Congressional Budget Office
Source: The Federal Budget in 2016, Congressional Budget Office
The end result, is that while infrastructure improvements enjoy broad bi-partisan support in Congress (after all, who doesn’t like nicer roads?), when you don’t have cash on hand to pay those improvements and would have to rely on an alternative revenue sources to pay for it, that’s where the proverbial political rubber hits the road. Hence, for example, the federal excise tax (i.e., “gas tax”) which funds road maintenance and improvements, has been sitting at 18.4 cents per gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel since 1993 (who would like to take the lead and sponsor that legislation?)
Trump’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Promise
On the campaign trail, Hilary Clinton proposed a five-year $275 billion infrastructure spending plan. In response, Trump promised to “at least double” Clinton’s proposed plan, and later promised to spend “at least” $1 trillion on improving the nation’s infrastructure through, according to Trump, infrastructure bonds.
Note: Apparently, like many working for Trump during his campaign, keeping up with him proved difficult, including by those maintaining his campaign website, which merely said he would spend “$550 billion or more” not nearly twice that amount.
Although not much is known about how President Trump will deliver on his $1 trillion infrastructure promise, in his victory speech, Trump stated that “[w]e are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” And as only Trump could say it, “[w]e’re going to rebuild our infrastructure – which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”
While it’s unclear what Trump’s infrastructure plan will ultimately look like, what is clear, is that his administration can’t do it without congressional approval. On one hand, that might not seem too difficult with Republican majorities in both houses. But, on the other hand, between the two major parties, Democrats rather than Republicans have been the traditional torch bearers for infrastructure spending.
However, there have been some clues as to what some of the components of Trump’s infrastructure plan may look like:
Tax Credits and Public-Private Partnerships: Trump’s economic advisors during his campaign – billionaire Wilbur Ross, who he has nominated as Secretary of Commerce, and economics professor Peter Navarro, who he has selected as Director of his newly created National Trade Council – have suggested a $137 billion federal tax credit to private companies that finance infrastructure projects, which they say would unlock $1 trillion in infrastructure investments over a span of 10 years . . . all at no cost to taxpayers.
Repatriation: Stephen Moore, a writer and political analyst, and tax advisor to Trump during his campaign, has pushed the idea of using monies received from a 10% overseas repatriation tax holiday to help fund infrastructure projects, although the proposal would likely raise only $150 billion over 10 years.
Reduced Regulations: Elaine Chao, President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, and spouse of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said during her confirmation hearing that the Trump administration would streamline regulations to get projects off (or, one might say, “on”) the ground, which was one of the complaints of President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (i.e., it took to long to get projects approved). She also said that direct federal investment in infrastructure is not off the table.
Buy and Hire American: President Trump has also previously stated, “[m]y administration will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.” While it’s unclear whether this is simply a reaffirmation of the “Buy America” program – in which preferences are given to companies using American-made products – or an expansion of that program to include preferences for American companies – Republicans have generally been against the program.
President Trump hasn’t indicated when he will unveil his infrastructure plan, but has said that it won’t be a “core” part of his agenda during his first few years, although when it is unveiled “we’re talking about a very large-scale infrastructure bill.”
Senate Democrats, in what appears to be in part an effort to drive a wedge between President Trump and congressional Republicans, have unveiled their own $1 trillion infrastructure plan and have urged President Trump to work with them. The plan, entitled “A Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure and Create 15 Million Jobs,” relies heavily on direct federal investment.
Trump’s Possible Infrastructure Plan Raises Concerns
First, let’s be clear: While Trump’s “infrastructure plan” has been bandied about, there currently is no infrastructure plan, or at least not a publicly disclosed one. President Trump has “promised” to spend at least $1 trillion on infrastructure. His “plan” on how he’s going to do that has not yet been unveiled.
Nevertheless, several concerns have been raised as to President Trump’s possible infrastructure plan:
A $1 Trillion Plan Won’t Pass Congress: A threshold question is whether congressional Republicans are even willing to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already stated that he wants to avoid a “trillion-dollar stimulus” to fund infrastructure. And his counterpart in the House, House Speaker Paul Ryan, has indicated that there are other more important agenda items ahead of infrastructure, including repeal of Obamacare.
Tax Credits Won’t Work for the Types of Projects Needed: First, a clarification: tax credits do work. Much of the nation’s affordable housing was built using tax credits. The issue here, though, is whether tax credits can spur private investment into infrastructure projects rather than affordable housing. Some say it won’t. Infrastructure projects, they argue, are extremely costly. As such, only large pension funds and investment funds controlled by other governments would have the financial wherewithal to invest in such projects. But those pension funds and investment funds don’t pay taxes. And if they don’t pay taxes, well, tax credits aren’t much of an incentive.
Public-Private Partnerships Won’t Work: Again, a clarification: Public-Private Partnerships (aka, PPPs) can work, and there are examples of successful PPP projects throughout the world. The issue is whether PPPs can be successful used for the types of infrastructure projects our nation needs. For a PPP project to be successful there must be a sufficient economic incentive for private equity to invest in the public project. Toll roads are a good example. There have been successful PPP toll road projects where a private developer (the concessionaire), in exchange for all or a portion of tolls received, will invest in and build such projects. However, while toll roads may be economically viable from in heavily populated urban areas, they are likely less so in more rural areas, which could lead to uneven infrastructure improvements. In addition, because there must be an economic incentive for private equity to invest in public projects, some have argued that for other types of infrastructure projects, such as dams and water treatment plans, the only economic incentive would be to impose a “use tax” on consumers, which are politically unfavorable, as the gas tax has shown. Finally, in today’s low interest rate market, it is relatively inexpensive to borrow capital, making it more likely that private developers would want to build more profitable, less risk-sensitive private projects than public ones.
We’ve Never Done Something This Big Before: That’s not to say that simply because we haven’t done something this big before means we shouldn’t do it, but when there are multiple pieces to coordinate it takes more than just force of will to get it done. Not only do you need the primary players, but new security instruments may need to be created for investors to invest in such projects. Insurance companies may need to create new insurance products to cover such projects. And there needs to be mechanisms by which the government, on one hand, can ensure that such projects get completed, and contractors, subcontractors, material suppliers and equipment lessors, on the other hand, assured they will get paid.
Finally, with respect to “the Wall,” all I can say is that it’s supposed to be “big” and “beautiful.” We will see.