US infra needs a unifying vision – can Trump deliver it?

Otherwise, private infrastructure investment risks becoming dangerously politicised.

It was never going to be easy: 50 states with their countless layers of municipal and local government 'playing nice' to deliver a $1 trillion infrastructure programme enabled by private capital.

We're not saying it can't be done, but President Trump's ambitious infrastructure programme was always going to need Democrats and Republicans, public and private sector, to rally around a grand, unifying vision. For a moment, at the start of the Trump presidency, it almost seemed the industry was going to get its wish of seeing the US, one of the world's most promising infrastructure markets, finally deliver on that promise. 

After the events of the past week, we're not so sure anymore. 

In case you've been holidaying on a particularly remote island, here's where things stand: President Trump's infrastructure press conference was hijacked, with the president ending up seemingly equating white supremacists with opposing protesters at Charlottesville, where the former caused the death of a young woman; that murky and morally indefensible proposition prompted corporate America to abandon the president in droves, starting with the chief executives on his two advisory councils, which were subsequently disbanded by the president; that, in turn, meant a third advisory panel focusing on infrastructure was effectively stillborn. 

And so ended a week that, in better times, would've been mostly focused on infrastructure – and with it, probably any remaining hope that the president's programme would be able to bridge the partisan gap. After all, in a country more divided than ever, it is highly unlikely that Democrats will be willing to hand President Trump anything that resembles a political victory. 

Unfortunately, things might still get worse. Privatisation and public-private partnerships are not uncontroversial subjects in the US. Many a PPP has collapsed at the 11th hour because of political opposition. As for privatisation, it's not surprising to learn the administration has met with the leading lights of Australia's infrastructure industry, for US efforts would greatly benefit from the virtuous narrative attached to that country's 'asset recycling' initiative. 

The worst outcome now would be for Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure programme – with its emphasis on private capital and PPPs – to become hopelessly politicised. Once that happens, it can be hard to reverse. 

The UK offers a cautionary tale. After David Cameron's Conservative government officially disowned the private finance initiative – initially a Tory creation but employed in earnest by Tony Blair's New Labour government – the procurement scheme died a quick death. PF2, which was supposed to correct the flaws of the original, was dead on arrival. These days, the chances of PFI/PF2 being embraced by any political force in the UK are less than zero. 

So what does that mean for US infrastructure? To put it bluntly, it means that if the Trump administration is going to do more harm than good to private infrastructure investment, then it's better to keep the (slow but steady) status quo. 

Because, make no mistake: from LaGuardia to UC Merced, private capital is increasingly flowing into US infrastructure. What Trump offered was the tantalising possibility of accelerating that deployment via a bipartisan, business-friendly national infrastructure programme. 

Unfortunately, such a programme requires the kind of bridge-building this president might be not be able to deliver.