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DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson discusses the governor's task force recommendations to boost state aid for roads and bridges by $700 million per year Monday Feb. 20, 2017, in Baton Rouge, La.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

While much is in flux in the new administration in Washington, perhaps no more murky subject is candidate Donald J. Trump’s plan to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and other vital infrastructure.

The new president has a lot of subjects to deal with, of course, but Louisiana officials say they cannot say when or in what form a new infrastructure initiative will come.

The president in campaign mode talked about spending a trillion dollars on rebuilding America’s aging network of roads, bridges, ports and airports. That’s a lot of money, though, and some on Capitol Hill have tried to dampen suggestions that such big sum will be forthcoming soon.

Still, Louisiana’s transportation chief is encouraged by the appointment of Elaine Chao, a veteran of the U.S. departments of Labor and Transportation, to head DOT in the Trump administration.

“The people at U.S. DOT want to invest in infrastructure like we do,” said Shawn Wilson, head of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

He noted at the Press Club of Baton Rouge that sources of funding and short- and long-term goals of a new infrastructure initiative remain in doubt.

One of the most commonly mentioned sources of new dollars for transportation is a tax bill that would allow companies a tax break to bring profits normally held in foreign subsidiaries back to the United States, called repatriation.

“There’s only so much you can repatriate for revenue,” Wilson said, but he said he is encouraged by discussion of infrastructure in Washington.

Whatever the course the Trump administration may take, there are lessons — positive, and not so good — from the last big infrastructure initiative, former President Barack Obama’s stimulus package that was intended to help with widespread unemployment after the stock market crash of 2008.

Two former officials who worked on the Obama package, Shoshana Lew and John Porcari, recently wrote about lessons from the experience for The Brookings Institution. They praised the work of state DOTs in spending a lot of the money very early on, but warned that newer and more complex projects may be slower to get into “shovel ready” status. Still, they said, those projects often have the most long-term impact on highways or other transit systems.

A legacy of the Obama period is the competitive TIGER grants; one of them helped to build the Loyola streetcar line in New Orleans, among other projects. A new competitive program is FastLane, which is funding significant improvements to Louisiana’s I-10 corridor between Lafayette and Baton Rouge.

Those grant programs might well be considered for expanded funding, if Trump wishes to have an early impact with new transportation spending.

“Recipients (of grants) can adjust to higher funding levels, but full absorption of a funding spike still takes time and not all construction or jobs will be immediate,” the two former Obama officials warned. “Generally speaking, new and more complex programs take longer to implement before shovels can ever hit the ground.”

We urge Trump to look at ways to make an impact over several years with any rebuilding proposals, allowing state partners like DOTD to plan and implement specific projects more smartly.