A Conservative Infrastructure Agenda
Donald Trump says he wants more infrastructure spending and he wants if fast. Yuval Levin has outlined a conservative plan in the Weekly Standard to prioritize economic growth while making enduring structural changes in infrastructure policy.
1. Reform Permitting Rules:
But beyond finding ways to accelerate all the permitting that’s now required, Congress should also cut down on the requirements—for instance, reducing the range of environmental concerns that require review under the National Environmental Policy Act and allowing such reviews to build on those conducted for similar projects in the past, rather than beginning from scratch with every application. Aggressively reducing federal permitting requirements would act as a multiplier of whatever else was done in an infrastructure bill, far better enabling federal, state, and local infrastructure spending to actually make a difference and thereby also encouraging more investment.
2. Alleviate Key Bottlenecks in the Transportation System:
[F]ocus on bottlenecks in the movement of goods before those in the movement of people.
This is not how politicians naturally incline to think about throwing money at construction projects, of course. But precisely because of how the political system tends to approach infrastructure, there is some relatively low-hanging fruit to be picked when it comes to major bottlenecks in the movement of cargo. Antiquated rail tunnels around Baltimore, for instance, create major choke points with huge implications for how goods move up and down the East Coast—and they also add to the number of trucks on highways, slowing the movement of people. The rail networks that converge in Chicago confront similar bottlenecks that create huge costs and delays. …
Those kinds of projects are what public (and particularly national) investments in infrastructure ought to emphasize. Their purpose should be, like the government’s role in a market system more generally, to help our economy function more effectively, enabling competitive markets in ways those markets are unlikely to take up themselves.
The movement of cargo isn’t more important than passenger transportation, but it’s less likely to already have a political constituency behind it, particularly at the state and local level. And it is also often (though not always) less likely to involve infrastructure upgrades that could readily be paid for by user fees, tolls, or other sources of profits for builders and investors, and so might require some public funding to spur action.
3. Set Course to Devolve Decision on Project Spending to States and Localities:
[S]uch legislation could significantly reduce the federal gas tax and allow states and localities to hike it back up to the degree they desire, raising revenue (while their residents only pay as much in taxes at the pump as they do now) for transit, roads, pipes, and other infrastructure projects better prioritized by policymakers closer to the ground.
States should also be allowed to establish new tolls on the Interstate Highway System, which they can do today only by building specialized new lanes or by begging the Transportation Department for hard-to-get exemptions. More generally, a new infrastructure bill should try to define in some bounded way the federal role in infrastructure policy.
Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.