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Trump Donates $100,000 to the Department of Transportation. How Much Infrastructure Will That Buy?

The president's gift underscores how little consumers of road and rail pay for the infrastructure they use.

DOT Sec. Elaine Chao accepts Trump's donationChristy Bowe/Polaris/NewscomPresident Donald Trump, gold-hearted philanthropist that he is, has donated his $100,000 fourth quarter salary to the Department of Transportation.

This is not the first time Trump has signed away his salary to a government agency, having previously given his quarterly earnings to the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Park Service, and the Education Department to promote different signature initiatives.

In this case, the gift was made to hype his just-released $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan. But while the check was obviously a PR stunt, the president might still be interested to learn just how much infrastructure it will actually buy.

According to a new report from the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), an average mile of new highway costs the taxpayer $91,992—just under Trump's $100,000 gift. But this average obscures huge variations in the capital costs of new roads.

Were Trump looking to reward his diehard base in rural Missouri, his benevolent largess could build nearly 4 miles of road. In his home state of New York, by contrast, the same amount would pay for a little more than a third of a mile. If Trump wanted to build more lanes to one of his New Jersey casinos, his bequest would buy a paltry tenth of a mile of road.

Infrastructure is not just highways, and Democrats have been hounding Trump about not spending enough on grants to mass transit. His proposal likely needs at least some bipartisan support to get through Congress, so Trump might want to consider directing his earnings to urban light rail projects.

Here, though, his dollars will buy even less.

In Nashville, the city government is contemplating a $5.2 billion, 26-mile light rail and rapid bus service expansion. If Trump were to contribute his $100,000 to the cause, he could purchase a cool 2.84 feet of new track.

Seattle's Lynnwood light rail project instead is promising 8.5 miles of new light rail for $2.9 billion. There, Trump's donation would procure a whole foot and a half of new, serviced track.

Of course, the president would be unlikely to spend his own personal funds for such little return, as indeed would pretty much anyone. That is why all big commuter rail projects and the vast majority of highway projects are not backed by investors writing checks or users paying out of pocket for the project over time. Instead they rely on a tax-borrow-and-spend system that's flush with federal funding, one that encourages politicians to demand as much as they can get from the national treasury while obscuring the true cost of the roads and transit systems that people use.

The legislative proposal that the administration released Monday does include a number of reforms that would give user fee–supported projects a boost. These provisions would loosen the rules for interstate tolling, allow airports to more easily charge passenger fees for facility upgrades, and remove restrictions on private infrastructure investment. Less happily, the bill would dump another $200 billion of taxpayers' money into the system, a number the administration is already intimating could rise higher still.

Were commuters confronted with the actual bill for these infrastructure projects, they might rethink how the money is spent. They might demand more necessary improvements, or maybe forgo some projects all together. But no one is paying the full cost of the infrastructure they use. Not even Trump.

Photo Credit: Christy Bowe/Polaris/Newscom

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  • John||

    Granted this isn't much money and certainly not much to Trump. The idea of someone in public office putting their own money behind some pet project, even if it is a single dime, is however refreshing.

  • Hugh Akston||

    So the guy has plenty of money to buy roads but he has someone else pay to keep his prostitute quiet?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    He wants to be able to say "MUH ROADZ!" and mean it.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Christian's getting sassy here.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    His dad probably made him take out the garbage.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    So no PM links today?

  • Adam330||

    The widely different amount states pay for roads is pretty interesting. It's too bad the report doesn't try to address why that is. Is it better/worse contracting, different standards, different terrain, more/less engineering, different costs for labor and materials, etc.?

  • John||

    I am going to go out on a limb here and guess the relative power of public employee unions directly correlates with the cost of building public infrastructure.

  • Adam330||

    I suspect that too. I'd like to see actual data though.

  • sarcasmic||

    Cronyism.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I'm gonna hazard that the biggest correlating factor is going to be population density.

    Snagging states from the top/bottom/mid of both scores:

    (States ordered by expense rank)
    South Carolina: $15,675/mile, 162 people/square mile (expense rank: 1, density rank: 19)
    Nebraska: $48,712, 24 people/square mile (expense rank: 10, density rank: 43)
    Tennessee: $72,418, 160 people/square mile (expense rank: 20, density rank: 20)
    Minnesota: $90,640, 68 people/square mile (expense rank: 30, density rank: 30)
    Alaska: $99,573/mile, 1 person/square mile (expense rank: 32, density rank: 50)
    Washington: $153,170, 107 people/square mile (expense rank: 40, density rank: 24)
    New Jersey: $919,040/mile, 1,017.4 people/square mile (expense rank: 50, density rank: 1)

    Hrm... well, at least at first blush, that doesn't seem to be quite right.

    Looking at just the ten most expensive (New Jersey, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California), I do see that seven are in the top ten most dense. On the flipside, the ten least expensive (South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Maine, Nebraska) only four are in the ten least dense lists.

    So I think the overall hypothesis (costs correlate with population density) is probably still right, but not as strong as I initially imagined.

  • Ben of Houston||

    Alaska and Hawaii are outliers due to transportation expenses, so really they are non-comparable. Several of the most expensive (New York, Illinois, and NJ to be specific) have notable histories of corruption. That may be the cause

  • 68W58||

    It's down to a wide variety of factors. Just for example North Carolina has the second highest amount of highway mileage of any state (after Texas), but we also have the highest rate of tire wear because the NCDOT allows a rougher aggregate in paving creating a cheaper, but more coarse, surface.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    The article references "new roads" which presumably involve eminent domain so real estate values could be a factor.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I'm gonna hazard that the biggest correlating factor is going to be population density.

    Snagging states from the top/bottom/mid of both scores:

    (States ordered by expense rank)
    South Carolina: $15,675/mile, 162 people/square mile (expense rank: 1, density rank: 19)
    Nebraska: $48,712, 24 people/square mile (expense rank: 10, density rank: 43)
    Tennessee: $72,418, 160 people/square mile (expense rank: 20, density rank: 20)
    Minnesota: $90,640, 68 people/square mile (expense rank: 30, density rank: 30)
    Alaska: $99,573/mile, 1 person/square mile (expense rank: 32, density rank: 50)
    Washington: $153,170, 107 people/square mile (expense rank: 40, density rank: 24)
    New Jersey: $919,040/mile, 1,017.4 people/square mile (expense rank: 50, density rank: 1)

    Hrm... well, at least at first blush, that doesn't seem to be quite right.

    Looking at just the ten most expensive (New Jersey, Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, California), I do see that seven are in the top ten most dense. On the flipside, the ten least expensive (South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, South Dakota, New Mexico, Montana, Maine, Nebraska) only four are in the ten least dense lists.

    So I think the overall hypothesis (costs correlate with population density) is probably still right, but not as strong as I initially imagined.

  • sarcasmic||

    A hundred grand should by about a tenth of a mile of highway.

  • sarcasmic||

    *buy*

  • Libertarian||

    That's what I was thinking. You might be able to repave a mile for that much, but even that would surprise me.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Were commuters confronted with the actual bill for these infrastructure projects, they might rethink how the money is spent. They might demand more necessary improvements, or maybe forgo some projects all together...

    They might demand that everyone be forced to pay a tax of some sort. Nice job making an argument for why taxes are necessary, Britches.

  • Hugh Akston||

    But wouldn't taxes just reduce the amount of money that commuters have to spend on roads?

  • Libertarian||

    Gas taxes are pretty close to being a user fee, although someone in a Prius is probably paying 1/4 of what someone in a pickup truck is paying. And once electric cars become common, government is going to have to come up with a solution if they want users to pay for roads.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Taxes on #2 diesel are business taxes that consumers ultimately pay whether they drive or not.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    A really big holiday party.

  • Libertarian||

    Trump's $100K won't even pay for a ribbon-cutting ceremony (if it's designed by the Swiss).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBELgO3MVY4

  • Libertarian||

    Sorry! That link sucks. This one is better.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ya6lOGPGw3w

  • Juice||

    Wednesday Thursday Friday?

  • John||

    Externalities can be positive as well as negative. There are economic benefits to my being able to get to work easily on a new road that I will not see. The benefit of that road is greater than just the benefits that it provides to the people who drive on it. So if the road benefits me X number of dollars a year, I am going to be willing to support paying taxes to build and maintain it up to X-1 every year. That sounds nice except that since there are benefits that come from the road I don't see, the real value of building the road is something greater than X. So if you build roads based entirely on people who use them paying to do so, you are going to end up building fewer roads than is economically ideal.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Were commuters confronted with the actual bill for these infrastructure projects, they might rethink how the money is spent.


    Well okay, but wouldn't the "actual bill" be divided up among users/commuters?

    Off the cuff, the ideal numbers would be some complicated combination of "how many drivers, how many miles does each driver drive, how many new miles are made" and so-on. And my back-of-napkin attempt to calculate such didn't turn out anything useful.

    So instead I'm just going to divide by population. How much is the per-mile bill for each state citizens?

    So Missouri gets $25,598 /mile, over 6,090,000 people, or $0.0042 per mile per person.
    New York gets $259,948 /mile over 19,750,000 people, or $0.0132 per mile per person.

    So yeah, at first blush it appears that a New Yorker's "bill" is 10x the per mile cost of a Missourian's "bill" would be, but once you account for population it's only 3x the per mile cost.

    So yeah. New Yorkers have a bigger bill then folks in Missouri. But not as much as Brtischigi would have you think.

  • Libertarian||

    "Were commuters confronted with the actual bill for these infrastructure projects, they might rethink how the money is spent."

    As they would with all the money Uncle Sam is spending, since about half of his expenditures are funded with borrowing, not taxes.

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