In the first two years of his term, President Donald Trump generated a lot of discussion about infrastructure. Many in the inland maritime community were encouraged when he highlighted waterways infrastructure in a June 7, 2017, speech in Cincinnati, complete with a backdrop of a towboat and tow.
But rhetoric and visibility aside, Trump has mostly been missing in action on infrastructure. His proposals for generating $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending were politely ignored, at best, by infrastructure stakeholders when it became clear that they actually involved a federal cutback in real spending and shifted the spending burden to the states, while providing incentives to attract private money from toll-seeking entities.
Several “infrastructure week” events drew useful attention to the need for funding, but otherwise went nowhere. Last year’s gains in funding for the Corps were welcome, but they happened in Congress without reference to the president or his infrastructure plans.
In his State of the Union speech February 5, Trump mentioned infrastructure only briefly and offered no new details. The White House posted a “fact sheet” to its website that was simply a list of bullet points. Those did include: “Many of our ports will require additional improvements to support larger cargo ships,” and “Locks and dams on high-traffic inlands waterways need investment.”
Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation, issued what amounts to a “wait and see” statement: “Tonight the president issued a bipartisan call to repair and restore America’s aging infrastructure. Over the last two years, due to the president’s policies, our economy has generated historic levels of economic and job growth for Americans and widespread private sector investment. This success is enabled by America’s transportation sector, but aging and insufficient infrastructure threatens to impede future growth.”
Waterways Council Inc. said, “WCI remains hopeful that the inland waterways will be included in any infrastructure legislation, and to assure that the proposal does no harm by way of tolls, lockage fees or user fees on the inland waterways transportation system.”
Infrastructure, and waterways infrastructure in particular, has proven to be an issue that can generate significant bipartisan cooperation on many occasions, including in the past session of Congress. But the House of Representatives has passed into the control of the opposing party, and a more than usually contentious and toxic political climate has made almost every issue a referendum on Trump. The president’s trade war with China is another wild card whose resolution at this writing is not certain.
It would be a shame if political jockeying sucks oxygen and attention from important issues like infrastructure.