Most Americans couldn’t tell you which state Oroville was in before its dam was about to burst. But once the California town was in trouble, the floodgates opened with calls to fix our nation’s infrastructure. Trump supported this plan during his campaign, and it’s one of the few issues he could unite with Democrats with to solve.
From Disrepair To Despair
On December 7, 1941, broadcasters warned of danger to the Americans stationed at Pearl Harbor and insisted, “This is not a drill!” It’s the same alert that went out to the residents of Oroville, California, who are living in the shadow of the nation’s tallest dam. When announcing the need to evacuate, the National Weather Service commanded, “This is not a drill. This is not a drill. Repeat…this is not a drill!” Soil erosion undermined an auxiliary spillway, imperiling all who live in that county.
As the country mobilizes for a war on our failing infrastructure, this event may serve as our own Pearl Harbor, in a way. “The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Tuesday during a press briefing.
“Dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair,” Spicer added. “In order to prevent the next disaster, we will pursue the president’s vision for overhaul of our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.”
It’s not just Trump who calls for this plan. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reviewed America’s infrastructure conditions and wrote, “America was given an overall grade of D+ in 2013. This grade indicates that on average; most of the infrastructure are in poor conditions and are at risk of failure. In order for the nation to maintain its status as the leading global economy, the state of infrastructure must improve.”
The authors note how the Highway Trust Fund was developed in 1956 to pay for such needs, but revenues have not kept up because the gas tax has remained unchanged and more fuel-efficient cars are on the roads.
In his review of the 2016 book The Road Taken, Aaron Klein offers this solution: “Build, baby, build.” He goes on to cite the ASCE report and adds that “business associations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and unions such as the AFL-CIO have all called for trillions of dollars in new investment. But Washington has failed to act.” Klein notes that commute times have more than doubled for motorists and documents other infrastructure failures from Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C.
The Road To Recovery
Trump’s plan calls for more than a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending, and, in theory, it has bipartisan support. However, Republicans and Democrats disagree on whether the funds should come from private or public money.
Given high-profile emergencies like the Oroville Dam, last decade’s I35W Bridge, and the failure of the New Orleans Levees during Hurricane Katrina, our infrastructure can’t tolerate partisan wrangling for too long. Hurricanes will return, as will increased rains, buckling bridges, and dams that degenerate. This country can’t afford another Johnstown Flood.
The border wall with Mexico is already expected to experience cost-overruns. Additionally, most Trump supporters don’t expect, or even insist, on a wall being built anymore. Trump has to decide whether to prioritize emergency infrastructure fixes or spend on an initiative that isn’t a top priority for his supporters anymore.
A solution is possible for a dealmaker artful enough to secure a political victory. It would entail compromising on the issue of private and public spending, where infrastructure problems are handled by a combination of tax credits and government spending. That should please both parties. It’s similar to the solution suggested by the ASCE.
Projects should be prioritized by the infrastructure most likely to fail, not by which district has a legislator with seniority. Trump also has the opportunity to mend his relationships with universities by activating their best researchers to identify the greatest problems. Academic experts such as these uncovered the Minnesota bridge problems and the California dam concerns, but they were generally ignored.
Solving the issue may mean delaying the border wall and securing a better negotiation of the price for it. But when voters see the choices that they are faced with alongside the increased willingness of ICE to conduct raids to deport illegal immigrants, fears over immigration should begin to subside. Trump will also get a better deal from the Mexican government on renegotiating NAFTA when the wall, which is politically toxic in Mexico, is off the table. That should help make many new infrastructure programs “shovel ready.”
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.