Whether in his first official State of the Union address last week, his 2016 campaign or his 2015 book, President Trump has been remarkably consistent about America’s infrastructure. It is, he maintains, crumbling and in need of repair. And while fixing bridges, roads and railways is a lofty and important endeavor, it does not lend itself to lofty rhetoric. No one seeks to be remembered as the Pothole President.
Meanwhile, the administration’s focus on the flip side of the infrastructure coin — tech infrastructure — might qualify as a presidential “big idea.” Yet despite asking the right questions, many of the administration’s answers are a little off the mark.
In tackling traditional American infrastructure, Trump asks what happened to the America that built the Empire State Building in two years, the Golden Gate Bridge in four years, or the first 20,000 miles of the Interstate Highway System in less than a decade. Today, D.C.’s 2.2-mile H Street Streetcar system took over six years to construct. How did we get to this point?
While it is true that America can no longer build at the blistering pace of the mid-20th century, this won’t be fixed with money. Trump’s recent call for a $1.5 trillion national infrastructure bill will be an expensive lesson that his predecessor already learned the hard way: Existing regulations mean there are no such things as shovel-ready projects.
We didn’t forget how to build, we just got tangled up in red tape along the way. From federal to state to local review processes and permitting, regulatory accumulation stymies efforts to build big things — and little things, for that matter. San Francisco is the second-most-expensive city in which to build on the planet, in large part due to its permitting process. The only more expensive city? New York.
In the same vein of his infrastructure talk, Trump recently asked whether America was at risk of losing its role as a leader in telecommunications. Will we lose the race to roll out 5G networks, the latest generation of wireless broadband standards that will allow new, faster internet-based services? Here, the roadblocks are more than virtual: e.g., outdated federal, state and local permitting requirements for construction on public property and public rights-of-way.
Regulation-induced paralysis will be more costly as technology advances. The latest technologies are bringing the benefits of computation out of cyberspace and further into the world of steel and concrete, and further into our lives away from computer screens. Uber, Lyft and Airbnb are just the beginning. Companies are testing self-piloted flying cars, smart glasses that provide augmented reality, and driverless semi-trucks.
We are on the cusp of things that previously seemed like science fiction — provided our government permits and in some cases enables it.
5G is part of the answer. It will give many cutting-edge technologies the mobility they require, but it requires the construction of new facilities that can blanket the country in wireless signals. America lagged Europe in 3G cellular deployment, took back the lead with 4G and powered the global “app economy,” but South Korea and a resurgent China are racing toward 5G expansion.
The current permitting, siting and review processes too often grind progress to a halt. Hundreds of thousands of new cell sites scattered across nearly 40,000 municipalities and counties — each with its own distinct permitting body — means too much capital will sit on the sideline if nothing changes.
Extreme measures have been floated. A national security adviser in the Trump administration proposed a national government-built 5G network in order to bypass state and local hold-ups. That would needlessly antagonize local officials, and a quasi-public 5G network would never work well. The Federal Communications Commission is exploring gentler ways of expediting 5G deployment, but the agency needs willing partners in cities and public service commissions.
There is no shame in being the Pothole President. In fact, our future will be better only if we plan and work to make it so. It just requires knowing when to pour the concrete and when to tear down roadblocks.