I’ve collected about 100 articles focusing on President-elect Trump’s environmental agenda, given his choice of climate skeptic Myron Ebell to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency transition team. I especially recommend Bill McKibben’s brilliant op-ed in the Washington Post.
But I’m not going to focus on environmental regulation and policy this week. As important as that is, there is one arena where decisions are even longer lasting and less reversible – infrastructure. On this subject, bipartisan confusion abounds.
It is almost an article of faith among both Democrats and Republicans that “infrastructure investment” is a good thing. To whit – “Our infrastructure is crumbling and needs to be repaired.” “Infrastructure investment creates jobs.” “We need modern infrastructure to support economic growth and innovation.”
These are compelling but dangerous platitudes. Infrastructure investment, generically, is neither good nor bad. The devil lurks among the details.
The mother of all American infrastructure extravaganzas was President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. An alphabet soup of agencies (AAA, CWA, REA, WPA, PWA, NRA, FSA, NIRA, TVA, CCC, NYA, to name a few…) distributed public funds for a dizzying array of projects. Schools, court houses and post offices were built and renovated, bridges constructed and parks developed. Libraries were erected and roads paved. Oral histories were captured, plays written, songs composed and murals painted.
Just a few examples illustrate the breadth of the New Deal initiatives: the Golden Gate Bridge, LaGuardia airport, the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Federal Writers’ Project, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
In South Carolina, the list ranged from the wonderful (e.g. the Dock Street Theater and the Citadel’s Summerall Chapel) to the catastrophic (the Santee Cooper project, which created lakes Marion and Moultrie and thus destroyed one of America’s greatest rivers, along with 170,000 acres of ecology and history, all to contribute a negligible couple of percent to our state utility’s power production capacity.)
One Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, the Federal Writers Project, supported some of the most important authors of the early 20thcentury, including John Steinbeck, Ralph Ellison, Conrad Aiken, Saul Bellow and Loren Eiseley.
As part of that program, South Carolina’s Genevieve Chandler collected stories from more than 100 former slaves on the Waccamaw Neck, capturing for posterity first hand recollections of that tragic era. Mrs. Chandler was the mother of Conservation League board member, Sister Peterkin, who died in 2011.
The federal programs were largely overseen by Harry Hopkins at the Works Progress Administration (WPA), his sometime antagonist, Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes, who ran the Public Works Administration (PWA), and Frances Perkins, who ran the CCC and helped manage the PWA. The point was to invest in things that put Americans to work and simultaneously achieved important national goals. With some exceptions, given what they knew at the time, Hopkins, Ickes and Perkins did an extraodinary job.
With this historical context in mind, what can we expect from President Trump’s infrastructure initiative? As this article from Vox explains, the proposal is entirely different from the New Deal, and from the federal “stimulus” program of 2008. Instead of grants, President Trump envisions making $137 billion in tax credits available for “public private partnerships.”
This arrangement is likely to support projects like new toll roads, electric power transmission lines, oil pipelines and other revenue producing investments. What it is not likely to fund are repairs to existing public roads and transit systems, drainage pipes, sewer and water plants, schools, libraries, post offices, or parks.
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what this means for infrastructure in South Carolina. (Here’s a hint – interstates to Myrtle Beach and John’s Island.)
A brief digression on “earmarks” will help illuminate this subject.
The Post and Courier’s Emma Dumain reports that the five-year respite from federal earmarks has some of our congressmen longing for the good old days. Of course, they don’t want earmarks “in the old sense,” but they are open to having just a bit more influence in deciding where the money goes…
Congressman Tom Rice from Myrtle Beach is at least honest. He’s one hundred percent in favor of reinstating earmarks. He notes that the only money available to build I-73 from Rockingham, NC to Conway came from an $80 million earmark from 2005. He would like to fund at least some of the remaining $2.4 billion with earmarks. But $2.4 billion, even in the heyday of earmarks, with Senators Thurmond and Hollings in office, would be a heavy lift.
So where would the remainder come from? Last year, the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce produced a study of the potential for tolls to cover some of the cost, and Myrtle Beach officials have met privately with Chinese investors in the last few months.
For more on the Byzantine machinations around I-73, this article from FITS News (caveat, FITS’ slogan is “Unfair, Imbalanced”…) reports that a West Virginia company participating in a public private partnership to build I-73 in that state is now conducting a survey for I-73 in South Carolina.
So…as they say in math: quo erat demonstrandum! (“thus it has been shown”) Well, not exactly, but I’m willing to put a few bucks on the likelihood of I-73, and I-526, being on the short list of public-private partnerships.
Which brings us, in an admittedly roundabout way, back to the types of projects likely to be supported under the current version of President Trump’s infrastructure plan.
What is not likely to be on the list is perhaps the most existentially important project in South Carolina today – the repair of Charleston’s low battery. As Steve Bailey writes in the Post and Courier, decades of neglect have left the iconic battery along Murray Blvd in a deplorable state of dilapidation.
A study done 15 years ago warned that it was likely to breach in a major storm, yet the city simply slapped a few more layers of concrete on it to hide the rusting rebar. A more recent study, in 2015, estimated the costs of repairing the low battery to be between $32 million and $110 million.
In Steve’s words:
Low Battery is a major risk and a huge cost facing Charleston. But it is something even bigger: It is a symbol of decades of neglect in dealing with the threat of the rising seas. While we built aquariums and concert halls and museums — all nice things to have — we woefully underinvested in the infrastructure needed to keep the city from sinking into the harbor.
No one seems to have any idea where this money could come from. I will suggest one obvious source – the South Carolina State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which has in its checking account roughly $400 million that will not be spent to extend I-526 to Johns Island. This would require Mayor John Tecklenburg and the City Council to dampen their enthusiasm for that interstate and look, literally, in the back yard of City Hall at this vastly more pressing need.
So, two things we know: 1. We have an almost unlimited need for the right sort of infrastructure investment. 2. At the moment, neither the City of Charleston, nor the state of South Carolina, nor President-elect Donald Trump is likely to direct public funding to those sorts of investment.
We’ve got our work cut out for us, first to persuade the president-elect to reconstitute his infrastructure program so that funding will be available for things that will truly make America great (again, or anew). And second, to come together in our communities around the projects that are essential for our future.
Have a great week!