The President’s plan for giving power over the infrastructure back to local levels goes back to the days of America’s rise as an industrial power

President Trump unveiled his infrastructure initiative Monday—a plan based largely on returning responsibility and power over the infrastructure to the State and local levels. This is an approach with roots in earlier US history.

Gary Cohn, Director of the President’s National Economic Council, outlined the need for the initiative in an article on the White House website: “The average driver spends 42 hours per year sitting in traffic, missing valuable time with family and wasting 3.1 billion gallons of fuel annually. Nearly 40 percent of our bridges predate the first moon landing. And last year, 240,000 water main breaks wasted more than 2 trillion gallons of purified drinking water—enough to supply Belgium.”

The plan calls for $1.5 trillion in total investment, but only $200 billion will be Federal funds, in the form of block grants and various programs for, among other things, loans and innovation. The rest is expected to come from State, local and private investment.

The second major aspect of the plan is cutting red tape, a recurring theme so far in the Trump presidency. Although the Federal Government owns a relatively small part of the Nation’s infrastructure, it’s still in charge of the permitting process, which has often been criticized for being too slow and onerous for developers.

The Trump initiative seeks to simplify the process by letting just one Federal agency lead, and be accountable for, the permitting, instead of the current sequential system involving several agencies. Gary Cohn says this will reduce the permitting process time from ten years to two, and also save money.

“Washington will no longer be a roadblock to progress. Washington will be your partner,” the president commented to local and state officials at the White House, ABC News reported.

Tough Funding

It’s not yet clear exactly where the $200 billion in funding will come from, and that part may be the biggest stumbling block for the initiative, as many Democrats are likely to call for more, while fiscally conservative Republicans may balk at the cost. Andy Laperriere, a policy analyst at the research firm Cornerstone Macro, called the funding an “absolute long shot”, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The question is also how willing Democrats will be to work across the aisle to give the President a major legislative achievement during an election year. Initial comments from Democrats were mostly negative, but Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said he was willing to work with Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on “a bill that could garner broad support and include ideas from both parties,” The Hill reported.

An Old Idea

The whole idea of giving State and local level greater responsibility and power over the infrastructure may sound novel, but it is in fact a return to “the standard approach during America’s rise as an industrial power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” John Tierney writes in an article in City Journal in January.

Washington did in fact not take a major role in infrastructure until the Great Depression, Tierney says, and evidence is abundant that this type of Federal spending has been ineffective. He cites the Interstate system as a prime example of how central planning ruins things: One-size-fits-all requirements and inflexibility led to neighborhoods being wiped out, and road standards that fit expressways were forced on dense urban environments. Tolls were outlawed, the main financing method—gas taxes—didn’t keep up with inflation, and Congress dipped into the funding and used it for other projects.

States need the freedom to innovate, Tierney argues, and this also seems to be one of the main ideas behind the Trump initiative.