Trump’s infrastructure plans could lead to re-installing Thruway tolls

I grew up in Kaisertown. I watched the Niagara Section of the Thruway built right before my eyes. The Ogden toll barrier was in sight of our front porch.

That toll barrier collected millions of dollars from drivers over a period of more than fifty years. It slowed traffic pouring into the city. What a crazy idea – charging people in a mid-sized metropolitan area a fee to enter the central city.

That barrier, of course had a sister location along the Niagara River, near Breckenridge. That was so that area residents coming into the central city from the north towns could also pay to enter. There was no fee to leave the city.

A few years ago those barriers came down after an aggressive campaign by local political and business leaders. Traffic finally, after more than fifty years, flowed freely into Buffalo.

We still have other barriers. The one in Lackawanna still nicks Southtowns residents traveling north. You must pay a small fee to exit the Thruway in Lancaster. There are tolls for entering Grand Island as you cross over the bridges.

In New York State we have had decades of experience paying highway tolls. While other states have some limited stretches of highway where tolls are required, our major thoroughfare that stretches from New York City to Niagara Falls has had tolls all along the way.

Trump’s transportation plan

Having failed to achieve any legislation except for the bill that allowed mentally incapacitated recipients of Social Security Disability to purchase firearms, the Trump administration says that they are moving on to infrastructure. This is “infrastructure week” for the Trumpkins.

What you will actually be seeing this week includes a couple campaign-like “Make America Great Again” events and a brief summary of how they eventually plan to roll out the proposed one trillion dollar infrastructure program. You will recall the one-pager that the administration tried to pass off as a tax reform program. When it comes to outlining what they are trying to do, Trump officials have actually been issuing a series of “Government Policies for Dummies” papers.

Trump told CBS News in April that an infrastructure bill was “largely completed, and we’ll be filing over the next two or three weeks, maybe sooner.” Administration spokesmen now say a real live bill is weeks or months away, and what Trump will present this week is what the New York Times describes as “the contours of a plan.”

If and when we get to see a full-blown infrastructure plan, it is expected to include highways, highway rest stops, bridges, airports, ports and privatized air traffic control recommendations. The preliminary information from the administration indicates that the federal government will put in just $200 billion over a ten year period for the projects. To put that in perspective, over the same ten year period, assuming that nothing changed with current federal highway legislation, the federal government will spend more than $350 billion on transportation improvements funded by the gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, which have not been increased since 1993.

So how do you pay for one trillion dollars of transportation improvements with only $200 billion in identified funding? It is actually a very simple proposition:

  • Bring investment bankers in to purchase current transportation assets from states and local governments. The then privately-owned assets would be rebuilt in one form or another. In order to re-coup their investments the investment firms would charge new or expanded tolls. Banks such as Goldman Sachs would salivate at the opportunity. And of course, Goldman Sachs has many friends in the Trump administration to smooth any bureaucratic speed bumps that might be encountered along the way. And one other note: when you privatize such assets you lose public control over future fees as well as the maintenance of the assets.
  • Tell the country’s governors, mayors and county executives that they are on their own for whatever transportation projects they have while receiving little or no federal funds for the work.

So that is how it might come to pass that highways and bridges might become toll roads, or that existing tolls would be increased.

I’ll take the risk here of attempting to draw together the potential impact of various proposed Trumpian legislation to see how all of this might work out. This is highly speculative, given that no one in Trumpland seems to have a clue about how the individual parts of their legislative agenda will play out, much less trying to tie them together.

Say, for example, that Congressman Chris Collins’ grand plan to force the State of New York to pay for all Medicaid expenses became law as part of the House-approved Trumpcare medical insurance program. Needing at that point to find a way to pay that added expense, privatized toll roads and bridges might get some attention from the governor and the state legislature. So back up might go the Ogden and Breckenridge toll barriers, with higher fees. The Niagara Section of the Thruway could become Goldman Sachs Way. The entire Thruway might become the Exxon Highway, with rest stops brought to you by Charmin or Frito-Lay – with higher costs for the use of the facilities and access to the vending machines that the captive audience might be stuck with.

The Trumpian “contours of a plan” will also include privatizing airports. The higher airline landing fees that might result from such arrangements, of course, will get passed on to the traveling public. Higher air fares will not necessarily lead to any improvement in travel as the airlines squeeze passengers in their seats and in their pocket books.

And of course there should be no concerns that turning ground transportation infrastructure and air control over to the private sector could create safety risks, for we all know that no good Republican businessman has ever cut corners or risked lives just to make an extra buck.  And we can rely on well-funded government watchdog agencies and good regulations to protect our citizens.

Trump promises that his Make America Great Again transportation plans will add millions of new jobs to the economy, typical Trump hyperbole since the work would be done over a period of years with many of the workers moving from site to site. His promise presupposes that all the moving parts that would need to come together to make the transportation schemes workable will magically fall into place.

There is also a question about where the actual workers would come from to implement the transportation plans. The New York Times had a very interesting article recently that suggested that the national economy is approaching what might be described as “full employment” where most people who are looking for a job have a reasonably good chance of finding one. Such opportunities, of course, do not distribute evenly across the country.

We know Trump will not let foreign workers get involved in the transportation projects. The number of Americans looking for work has decreased. The number of Americans receiving or seeking Social Security Disability payments has grown substantially, particularly in the rustbelt/coal belt regions that so strongly supported Trump in last year’s election.

As you watch the Trumpian contour of an infrastructure plan roll out this week keep in mind that the administration and the Republican-led Congress are having trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. Any anxiety or concerns about the problems that their plan or even the more broadly envisioned budget cutting might engender need to be tempered by reality.

That reality is that the crew that is struggling with health care, tax reform, immigration and infrastructure legislation must first figure out the basics of passing a budget and extending the debt limit. There is no game plan. Nothing is working. And so while a cautious eye should be kept on what is proposed, there is not much likelihood that Trump’s agenda will ever see the light of day.

Oh yeah, and there is that pesky Russian problem.

House of Cards

I’ve been thinking that with what has been going on in Washington this year there is no reason to watch Netflix’s fifth season of House of Cards, but I decided to take a look anyway. Without getting into spoiler alerts, the episodes deal with a conniving president, Russian interference with the American election, an incompetent White House staff, attempts to tamp down the FBI and the CIA, politically motivated terror scares and congressional investigations. Where do the show’s writers come up with such crazy ideas?