February and March are especially trying months for Maine drivers. Relentlessly falling precipitation combined with freshly emerging potholes make our roads especially treacherous this time of year. Infrastructure improvements to roads and highways, bridges and tunnels, and sewers and sidewalks are not cheap, either. Cities and towns spend millions of dollars a year on these items, and the state of Maine spends tens of millions of dollars more.
Unfortunately for Maine taxpayers, President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan will shift even more of these costs to local taxpayers while doing little to get at the core issue plaguing our country’s ailing infrastructure: chronic underfunding because of misplaced federal priorities.
When Trump campaigned for president, he did so with an applause-generating commitment to put forth a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan was thin on the details. Local and state officials cheered the idea at the time, as infrastructure expenses have always been among the most costly items in their budgets. Chambers of commerce and other business groups supported the plan, too, as the link between a modern and well-maintained infrastructure and the economic health of the nation has long been philosophically understood if not fiscally prioritized. Builders and trade unions applauded the commitment as well, with a readiness to get to work building roads, fixing pipes and replacing bridges.
What emerged this week, however, was a far cry from Trump’s previous rhetoric about improving the nation’s infrastructure. Instead of broadening and deepening the federal government’s commitment, Trump’s plan flips the federal funding formula on its head, requiring more local and state dollars to complete infrastructure projects. The result will be higher costs for local taxpayers and fewer infrastructure projects actually taking place.
As it stands, a typical road project, for example, is funded through a combination of local, state and federal dollars. The federal government has traditionally picked up 80 percent of the cost of most projects, with the remaining 20 percent coming from local and state sources. This has been a reasonable arrangement, as the formula recognizes that cities and towns should contribute a portion of the funds necessary to improve the roads within their boundaries while acknowledging that local taxpayers are already tapped out and cannot shoulder the full financial burden of projects that sometimes can run into the millions or even tens of millions of dollars.
Under Trump’s plan, however, the federal government will fund just 20 percent of infrastructure projects, with the remaining 80 percent coming from “other sources,” which will likely be mostly state and local tax dollars. In a callous twist of language, the plan refers to this as an “incentive” for cities, towns and states to invest in their infrastructure — as if they weren’t already trying.
The plan further misleads the American public by touting its commitment to provide “$1.5 trillion in investments.” Yet, the plan actually commits only $200 billion in federal dollars, a mere 13 percent of the top line number; the rest will be made up, presumably, by contributions from state and local governments and private entities.
Others aspects of the president’s plan are worthy of discussion, including streamlining the approval process for certain projects and the consideration of broadband as a necessary part of the nation’s infrastructure.
But make no mistake about it: Trump’s ultimate goal is to shift the cost of infrastructure improvements directly to ordinary Americans through their property taxes and state income taxes. Further gaps will likely be paid for by all of us through increased road tolls and additional surcharges when traveling by plane, rail or boat. Fewer projects likely will take place, and the ones that do will cost more for ordinary citizens, who already pay a good deal in taxes each year.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s infrastructure a D+ in 2017 and estimated that the United States needs to invest $4.59 trillion in its infrastructure by 2025. The costs of not acting are numerous from the dampening of business activity, to weakness in the tourism and travel market, to replacing the shocks and struts on our vehicles, not to mention the risks to life and property from crumbling bridges and failing pipes.
The plan put forth by Trump will do little to improve this and, in reality, will take us in the opposite direction. Congress should reject the president’s proposal and formulate its own plan to properly tackle our nation’s infrastructure challenges with appropriate levels of federal funding.
Ben Sprague is chair of the Bangor City Council.
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