Lessons From the Road: Why Infrastructure, Not Taxes, Should Be Next
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the future is for the bold.
By Nick Fouriezos
Having toured half the country for OZY’s States of the Nation project, reporter Nick Fouriezos reflects on the lessons learned from his travels around this imperfect union.
No amount of posturing can disguise the fact that, when it comes to legislative wins, the early going has been a slog for Donald Trump’s administration. Multiple attempts at reforming health care have drained support like a leaky spigot — and Trump’s team isn’t even close to tackling tax reform, a key item on its summer to-do list.
If the 45th U.S. commander-in-chief had been on the docks of Baltimore’s port with me back in February, he might have realized that infrastructure was his best bet for crafting a bipartisan bill — one that could have given him early momentum for the tougher tasks. The scene that morning was impressive: Towering over me were four massive white cranes used to handle cargo from gargantuan Neopanamax ships. But they also represent jobs — 130,000 of them in Maryland alone. And if Trump wanted to push through the $1 billion infrastructure project he promised would bring jobs back and restore American greatness, all he had to do was turn to Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a rising Democrat power player who volunteered to help lead a bipartisan look at the issue.
The question of infrastructure asks Americans to reimagine the world they want to live in.
Going far beyond the highways, bridges and airports that Trump clamored for on the campaign trail, the question of infrastructure asks Americans to reimagine the world they want to live in. That discussion is taking place from the Everglades of Florida to the South Side of Chicago, where the rise of Uber is creating surprising jobs. Locals there like to joke that they have “two seasons: winter and construction.” Yet they complain that area workers aren’t the ones being hired to rebuild their communities. And such conversations are generating creative solutions to enduring problems.
Blacksburg, Virginia, and environs, once called the “most wired community” in the world, is evolving into a nano-Silicon Valley. Yet drive 15 minutes in any direction and a digital wall between the internet haves and have-nots quickly forms. On my travels, I found that such experiences were not uncommon. In nearby Kentucky, former state auditor Adam Edelen remembered watching McDonald’s parking lots fill up across the Bluegrass State around school pickup times: Parents and children were there to download homework assignments at the fast-food Wi-Fi hotspot before heading to dead-zone homes. Broadband could connect employers to workers in ways previously unimagined by the railroad and highway builders of the world, allowing tech-savvy employees to live in rural, jobless communities while working for companies on the coasts. High-speed internet is crucial to connecting the country too, bringing residents in states like Kentucky and West Virginia — where radio and cellphone signals are often elusive — out of a cultural isolation that is not just geographical but technological and psychological.
The self-proclaimed “Crossroads of America” has a vested interest in seeing national infrastructure prosper, although Indiana might not be the first state that comes to mind when outsiders think of innovation. Yet towns across the state are considering rebuilding in creative ways. Gary, once a thriving steel town, was devastated by manufacturing decline and white flight, but it’s starting to rebound, thanks in part to investments in a downtown culinary center and a mural-centric arts and business district. South Bend, the worn-down neighbor to Notre Dame, is using old railroad lines to become a fiber-optic hub for cloud-sharing companies. And Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis, has embraced a European urban model, adopting wide boulevards, sculptures and roundabouts to elevate the quality of life. The cities have one major shared trait: Take-charge mayors, from Gary’s Karen Freeman-Wilson to South Bend’s Pete Buttigieg and Carmel’s James Brainard, whose infrastructure dreams include a bullet train that could allow Indiana residents to commute to Chicago, currently a three-hour drive, in less than an hour.
Charleston might be best known for its historic cobbled streets and storied food markets, but its port is quickly becoming the landmark worth noting — at least for those who want to see the future of the South’s economy. The value of American ports that export goods, especially as auto manufacturing thrives stateside, is expected only to increase, which is why both Charleston and its neighbor, the Port of Savannah, Georgia, are doubling down, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop their maritime source of new and old wealth. There are concerns, including the effect of any trade slowdown should Trump fulfill campaign promises of American isolationism, but so far, port projects look like a good bet — and they are relying heavily on partnerships with the federal government to fund their expansion.