Dave Helling

Dave Helling: While Washington fiddles, Kansas City’s infrastructure crumbles

The Buck O’Neil Bridge may need a $150 million upgrade. But the Trump administration's promise to fund infrastructure projects around the country remains a hazy promise.
The Buck O’Neil Bridge may need a $150 million upgrade. But the Trump administration's promise to fund infrastructure projects around the country remains a hazy promise. kmyers@kcstar.com

This spring, Kansas City voters agreed to raise their taxes to pay for bridge and street improvements over the next 20 years.

Now those same voters are contemplating a $1 billion proposal to build a new airport terminal. Jackson County may soon consider a $300 million jail project. The Buck O’Neil Bridge may need a $150 million upgrade. Multibillion-dollar water and sewer repairs are underway.

It’s a familiar tale: Crumbling infrastructure, ignored for far too long, must be repaired or replaced at enormous cost.

Kansas City isn’t the only city facing these problems, of course. It’s almost a cliche: Harbors, the electric grid, highways, rail transit and water systems across the nation are falling apart more rapidly than ever.

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers claimed the U.S. must spend $4.6 trillion by 2025 to make needed repairs to dams, highways, airports and other public facilities.

How did we get in this mess? The answer seems obvious: Repairs that should have been finished years ago were delayed or dismissed, the victim of anti-government, anti-tax fervor.

To govern is to choose, and some projects necessarily had to wait. Not everything can be built at once.

But costs never go down. Each year of delay means more expensive streets and sewers and jails and airports, as Kansas Citians know all too well.

Enter President Donald Trump.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump made infrastructure spending a centerpiece of his message. “We’ve become a Third World country,” he said, promising to invest at least $500 billion in infrastructure repairs.

But as is often the case, candidate Trump and President Trump appear to be at odds over the issue.

The administration’s infrastructure plan remains a hazy promise at best. Proposals to hack away at the tax code, shred the social safety net and rework health insurance are slowly working their way through the congressional process.

Infrastructure? So far, there has been no framework for discussion. We have no idea how the government would pay for needed capital improvements or how quickly the money might be available.

We may get an idea what the White House has in mind this week.

The administration’s budget offers a few clues. It proposes a vague $1 trillion, 10-year program based on incentives for the private sector, with no explanation of how it would work.

“Simply providing more federal funding for infrastructure is not the solution,” the document says.

Actually, more federal funding would be a solution. In fact, it’s the solution Trump promised not that long ago.

The result of this equivocation is clear in the charts accompanying the budget. The administration wants to spend $200 billion on an infrastructure program, but only over the next 10 years. This year, the budget calls for spending $5 billion on building projects, roughly 10 percent of the proposed increase in defense spending.

Trump’s fellow Republicans seem especially unhappy about the prospect of an infrastructure bill. Having hammered President Barack Obama for the 2009 stimulus, they can hardly endorse a similar proposal now.

But corroding iron and crumbling concrete don’t repair themselves. And the costs are only going up.

So let’s hope Washington figures out a way to help cities and states repair what’s broken, and soon. We’d like to help, but our hands are full — with a cracking bridge, a crowded jail, unfunded highways, a failing airport and sewers that overflow when it rains.