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Trump's leaked $1 trillion building plan is on the right track

  • Key details of the Trump team's $1 trillion infrastructure have leaked to the public.
  • The best news is that the plan does not seem interested in building more new roads or too many unsustainable projects.
  • Instead, a new priority is put on non-federally funded sustainability and protecting our electricity and water supplies.
Construction crews conduct repairs on Broadway Street in San Francisco.
Getty Images
Construction crews conduct repairs on Broadway Street in San Francisco.

A significant portion of what looks like the draft of the promised $1 trillion White House plan to overhaul U.S. infrastructure was published by Axios on Monday.

Based on what's in that draft, everyone should take a big sigh of relief … not because of what's in it, but because of what isn't in it.

There's good reason to be frightened every time anyone even mentions the idea of a $1 trillion national infrastructure project. That's because it's not our roads, bridges, or any of our physical projects in America that are the biggest problem.

The biggest problem is that our entire culture of infrastructure planning is inefficient, dangerous and financially unsustainable. Despite all the economic and social changes in America over the last 60 years, our cities and towns are still planned as if the most important thing is making it easier for cars to drive through them as fast as possible.

But other than that Mrs. Lincoln …

That's why it's so refreshing to see that building new roads and speeding the flow of traffic is not listed as a priority anywhere in the leaked draft.

"Despite all the economic and social changes in America over the last 60 years, our cities and towns are still planned as if the most important thing is making it easier for cars to drive through them as fast as possible."

Instead, there's a major push for securing the electrical grid and the clean water supply. These are both incredibly vital issues for obvious reasons. But remember, too, that no infrastructure projects can work without a safe and reliable power and water source in the first place. Addressing this first is more important than anything new.

The second great piece of news from the draft is the prominent mention of the need for non-federal government or private sector-funded sustainability. In other words, the White House wants localities to prove they can sustain these projects without having to ask the rest of the nation's taxpayers for bailouts over time.

The draft says that providing this proof will be 50 percent of the overall requirement to get the funding in the first place. This is crucial as several localities across the country have become so addicted to federal road and transportation funding that they don't even bother to set aside their own money to complete even the most simple projects or repairs.

That kind of focus on sustainability and maintenance can still be a double-edged sword. It's no good maintaining poorly designed roads and white elephant projects like unused convention centers and only rarely used football stadiums.

And as anyone who drives on New York's Cross Bronx Expressway can tell you, repairs aren't as important as redirecting and re-planning that Robert Moses-created travesty that causes traffic havoc on a daily basis.

But even if some of the maintenance funding and efforts are wasted, that's better than spending the money to create new unneeded roads and projects.

The final encouraging note is smarter than it will be popular. The leaked memo says states should be awarded the "flexibility" to collect interstate tolls and to utilize toll revenues for infrastructure.

Drivers don't like tolls for obvious reasons. But collecting them and using them expressly for road maintenance and safety is vital for sustainability. Otherwise, taxpayers who may not even use a particular road or bridge will always be on the hook for it. Tolls thus reveal the true cost of our car-obsessed transportation system. And the truth could one day set us free from it.

Of course, there's still a chance that some precious funds will be thrown away on extravagant projects we don't need or won't be able to maintain. But it's a relief the draft only earmarks 10 percent of the total government funding for a so-called "Transformative Projects Program." If that's the tradeoff we have to make in return for a wider focus on safety and maintenance, it's probably worth it overall.

Another wildcard is the 25 percent of federal funding that will go to a "Rural Infrastructure Program" that is not defined in a detailed manner. This could lead to a lot of new white elephants like ADA-compliant crosswalks through cornfields, (yeah that really happens). But it could also provide some seed money to build traffic lights at rural intersections which claim all too many lives every year.

Just Google "rural intersections dangerous killed" and you're not likely to finish reading the news stories about the deaths from just a month's worth of accidents in these areas.

Obviously, this is just a first take on an incomplete document. But the worst ideas about our infrastructure seem to either not exist in this White House draft or at least they are marginalized.

Let's see where the rest of the road takes us.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.