In his address to the joint session of Congress earlier this week, President Trump once again stressed his commitment to infrastructure development.
But he didn’t offer much more beyond that.
“There wasn’t a whole lot there; no details,” said Cathy Roberson, founder of Logistics Trends & Insights. “He’s just reiterating what he’s already promised.”
To wit: Trump made several references to “crumbling” infrastructure in his speech, in which he said the “last truly great” national infrastructure program was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s effort to start building the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
“The time has come for a new program of national rebuilding,” Trump said to 15 seconds of sustained applause.
The U.S. has spent $6 trillion on various endeavors in the Middle East – funds that could have rebuilt domestic infrastructure twice over, he said.
“And maybe even three times if we had people who had the ability to negotiate,” he quipped.
Trump said he planned to ask Congress to approve a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure projects, financed through public and private capital.
Doing so would result in millions of new domestic jobs, the president said.
Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Assn., said he was “disappointed” Trump’s speech was so sparse on particulars.
“Talk to anybody in trucking – they all bemoan the state of our highways,” he said. “But there’s consternation over how to pay for this.”
In the past, the industry has generally supported a diesel fuel tax increase, but advocates have worried that the revenue would go toward road beautification projects or bicycle lanes rather than highway refurbishment.
But for the most part, truckers are wary of public-private partnerships, a financing method Trump has previously said he may rely on, Rajkovacz said.
“Public-private partnerships are tolling – that’s what they always end up being,” he said. “Truckers would rather see the cost recovery done at the pump.”
However, Chris Spear, chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, said the trade group was pleased to hear Trump “again sound the call” to improve infrastructure.
Trucks move 70 percent of goods domestically “on a system of highways and bridges that is now on life support,” Spear said in a statement.
“ATA is eager to work with the administration and Congress on solutions to funding this bold and long overdue goal,” he said.
Roberson, meanwhile, was skeptical of Trump’s ability to pull off his plan strictly by buying and hiring American, as he’s pledged.
A 4.8 percent national unemployment rate has many employers already struggling to find workers who are available and qualified, she said.
“I see a lot of help wanted signs around the Atlanta area at least – they can’t fill the open positions,” she said. “Maybe there aren’t enough people or maybe there’s not enough interest – either way, he’s going to have a problem with this.”
Roberson also wondered whether large-scale infrastructure projects at home will be enough to convince manufacturers who have offshored to other countries to bring production of steel and other materials back to the U.S.
“It all sounds nice. It really does,” she said. “But the reality is that we’re a global society now.”
Trump should have paid more lip service to the powerful freight industry, Roberson said.
The speech also neglected to specify whether infrastructure spending would involve “just putting bandaids on existing projects” or also support technological innovation such as electric vehicles and autonomous trucking, she said.
“I’m happy he’s set infrastructure as a priority, but he’s going to need to do his research,” she said. “Peeling away all the red tape is going to take time – I don’t see this happening in the short term.”
If anything, Trump may have more allies across the aisle when it comes to infrastructure legislation.
Senate Democrats pitched an infrastructure plan to Trump in January that would involve $1 trillion in direct federal funding over 10 years for airports, bridges, roads, ports and other projects.
Infrastructure “has always been a bipartisan issue,” and the Democrat proposal is “an important first step,” said Marcia Hale, president of Building America’s Future, a coalition of elected officials focused on infrastructure.
Many Republicans are what Rajkovacz calls devolutionists – they think road, bridge and port spending should be decided at the state level.
“Trump is pitching the mother of all public works projects – he’s going to have to convince his own party to go along with this,” he said. “It might be an easier sell to get the Democrats on board.”