Clinton, Trump, and the Gap in America’s Infrastructure

Democrats have always gone misty-eyed over metaphors.  Perhaps it is the only means by which they feel their constituents can conceptualize complex ideas.

So it is not surprising that the Clinton campaign is attempting to throw a one-two punch at Donald Trump by smugly stating that, unlike him, its high-principled candidate believes in building bridges, not walls!

Well, the fact is that Hillary has never built anything her life… not even consensus.  I doubt if she knows the first thing about bridges other than that her driver had better get her official vehicle over them in time for some unimpressively-attended rally. As for walls, one has recently been constructed around her Chappaqua compound.

Over a decade ago, some members of Congress raised a big stink about what they termed “ The Road to Nowhere,” a derisive label unfairly applied to then Alaska Senator Ted Stevens‘ federal earmark in a transportation  bill to construct a bridge from mainland Ketchikan to  Gravina Island, on which the local airport is located.

Rather than leading “nowhere, ” the bridge would have been a much-needed alternative for those who even now must take a ferry from the mainland, often in choppy seas, across  part of Alaska’s Inside Passage to the island airport. (From personal experience, I know how unpleasant that can be in the rainy weather of the region.)

Since there are no roads over the Tongass mountains into Southeast Alaska, some 200,000 passengers annually depend on airline travel.  But as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin put it, “Much of the public’s attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here.”

At around the same time as the Gravina Island bridge proposal was struck down, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware had little trouble getting approval for a new bridge, partly financed with federal funds, to be built over his state’s Indian River Inlet between the two beaches of Rehoboth and Bethany.   After a series of labor disputes and other complications, The Charles W. Cullen Bridge was finally completed in May 2012, just in time to accommodate summer beach-goers. 

The earlier Indian River bridges had fallen into dangerous disrepair, as has too much of the infrastructure in the United States. Our clogged, stalled cities now compare unfavorably with many of those in other countries, putting an unflattering face on America’s decline.  Immigrants who came to our shores in droves at the turn of the 20th century may have been disappointed not to see the streets paved in gold.  Now we are surprised not to find them riddled with potholes. 

Recently there was an illustrated list on the Net of the world’s current crop of spectacular and unusual bridges.    And while I was duly impressed, I was disappointed that not one of them was located here in the United States.

During the Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” fracas, Congress had expressed alarm at how high the bridge would have to be built to enable cruise ships and other substantial maritime craft to navigate beneath it.  Now the proponents of that project are reconfiguring the design.  But Japan apparently met the challenge of the Eshima Ohashi bridge which soars across Lake Nahaumi, rising at a gradient of 6.1% to allow ships to pass below. It was the generosity of Allied victors that rebuilt Japan after World War II.  Seventy years later, that country’s technology is putting America to shame.

During every election year, we hear the siren call to spend more taxpayer money improving our crumbling infrastructure.   We are lured by the promise of massive job creation. The first of the Obama administration’s stimulus bills – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- pledged to go heavy on shovel-ready construction projects that would result in thousands of work opportunities.  But neither happened.  The president later joked that the shovels, it seems, weren’t ready.  Perhaps he was waiting for them to be shipped from China! 

Even if the shovel-ready construction jobs were for real, how many American workers are even trained to do them? The mindset of Americans has changed radically  since the dark days of The Great Depression, when pangs of hunger --  and even the possibility of starvation --  propelled desperate citizens to take on whatever employment they could find.  Some of our country’s most formidable infrastructure was built by willing, hard-working neophytes who learned as they earned.

But the current crop of out-of-work Americans has neither the empty bellies nor the fire in them to enlist in such physically grueling work.  Democrat politicians even mollycoddle the masses and justify illegal immigration by insisting there are jobs that Americas will not  -- maybe even cannot -- do!

So very likely, in order to get the massive projects done, we would have to import not just the shovels, but the men to wield them.  Although out population has multiplied many times since we industrialized America, we might still have to resort to what we did centuries ago: get our labor from the poorer  countries  around the globe.  Some of these imported workers will have had experience in building infrastructure “back home.”  Can any of the desk-chained bureaucrats in Washington sense the irony --and the tragedy! –- in this likely scenario?

The bottom line – and it’s written in red ink -- is that for all the funds expended, the administration’s vaunted economic policies have led  largely to a  dead end.  The promised bridges to prosperity went nowhere.  And now we find ourselves in yet another election year, thinking  -- to paraphrase   Ronald Reagan -- “Here they go again.”

When Donald Trump, a builder by profession, dares to speak out about the obvious deterioration of our airports, bridges, roads and railways, he is accused of needless pessimism.  That’s because politicians do not necessarily believe that honesty is the best policy.  I live in a state reputed to be the sixth largest economy in the world.  Some experts dispute this designation because it “ignores the real and structural long-term challenges facing the Golden State.”  One such challenge is our inadequate transportation system. 

The Golden State rail options, for example, are so limited that a trip on Amtrak generally assumes spending time on a bus. Jerry Brown’s signature boondoggle bullet train, designated to eventually run five hundred miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco, at present seems to be devoting its engineering resources to digging a deeper hole in which to pour money.

The ultimate price tag for the California High Speed Rail has (for now) been pegged at 64 billion, but its financial sources have dried up.  Brown will try to renegotiate some kind of state Cap and Trade deal in order to generate funds for his pet project.  In the meantime, it is grossly underfunded and hugely unpopular with residents.  California is deep blue politically, of course, but Trump is winning in polls among the voters of the Central Valley, where the eyesore is currently languishing among the tumbleweeds.

Some wag has suggested that Brown’s last hope for his bullet train might be a Donald Trump presidency.  After all, The Donald, who admires high-speed transportation, has said, “The Chinese have trains that go 300 mph.  We have trains that go chug-chug!”