When it comes to transportation, Donald Trump is much like a casino for a desperate state willing to bet the power bill money to try to win the rent.
While the president was out of the country last week, his advisers rolled out the latest package of ideas for the $1 trillion investment in American infrastructure Trump promised.
Colorado was listening.
Spin doctors here have conditioned us to believe our growing highway needs are like a herd of zombies coming this way. Before they eat us, we might have to take the light rail or ride a bike, because the traffic’s too bad.
Any help from Uncle Sam should feel like a godsend. A jackpot from Washington would be a political bailout Colorado legislators. And when hope runs low, luck is your new best friend. Typical of a casino, Trump reserves the edge.
His transportation plan calls for privatizing government-owned assets to pay for all infrastructure. In exchange for better roads, bridges, pipelines and broadband, we would pay as we go.
Colorado has been there, done that, Mr. President.
The one piece of good news for transportation from the session was in the omnibus Senate Bill 267. It raises $1.88 billion for transportation — a quarter of it goes to rural counties and 10 percent to transit — over the next 20 years by selling state buildings then paying rent to use them.
With government buildings already off the table, that doesn’t leave Colorado much else of that value to put in Trump’s public-private pot. We have no ports to privatize or a state-owned airport to mortgage. Casa Bonita is already privately owned. State parks and public lands are a whole other kettle of fish.
That leaves highways and that means tolls, Shailen Bhatt, the head of the Colorado Department of Transportation, told me the other day.
“One of the things I’ve heard pretty clearly from the folks in the Springs and Douglas County and other places is that they don’t want a toll on I-25,” the state highway director told me, referencing some of the most politically conservative parts of the state.
“Well, that’s what the president’s plan pretty much requires.”
The reality check is that this is Trump talking. He would have to pass this plan through Congress, albeit a Republican one.
Imagine paying $20 in tolls each way to drive from Colorado Springs to Denver, or $50 each way to go skiing. Some people could still afford that, but a lot of us would stay home. Poof, traffic jams solved by social engineering.
If we ignore the traffic jams until they get a little worse, it could drive more people onto more mass transit. Poof, traffic jams solved by social engineering.
Transportation is a part of our everyday lives, and one way or another it always gets in our wallets.
In the last session Colorado lawmakers, for the most part, scattered into partisan camps against new taxes on the right versus cuts to existing programs on the left. Toll roads were middle ground. Everybody hated toll roads, right up there with traffic jams.
These weren’t even the soul-sucking institutional toll roads of the Northeast. They were railing on express lanes which run alongside the free lanes.
There are plenty of horror stories about such public-private partnerships, “ill-prepared governments saddling themselves with bad deals,” as the Washington Post called selling public assets for a one-time windfall with long-time payments.
And such deals are not the marvels of the free market that Republicans embrace. They are government-granted monopolies — ya’ know, picking winners and losers.
Trump’s trillion-dollar transportation deal is so laden with these public-private partnership’s that the federal government would put in just $200 billion. Investors and toll-payers cover the rest. He’s playing with the house’s money.
Federal hope equals no hope. Actually, it’s less than no hope.
Trump’s proposed federal budget cuts federal transportation programs by 13 percent. But that’s OK, his people say, because it’s more than offset by his transportation package. Ya’ know, the one with tolls.
For instance, Trump’s budget red-lines the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants that last year dealt $15 million to put an extra lane in each direction of I-25 from Loveland to Fort Collins — toll lanes.
I’m not a gambler, at all. Still, I’ve spent more time in casinos than most people you know. I used to live in a casino town, I covered the national casino industry for awhile and I’m still a regular guest at the $30 buffets in Las Vegas.
There are two things locals tell you over a cocktail in Sin City at 3 a.m. The games were more on-the-level when they were run by the mob instead of Wall Street, and don’t bet what you can’t afford to lose.