"Westway" was the name of a long running public works plan in New York to turn the West Side HIghway - which was, in the seventies, an elevated roadway well down the length of Manhattan - into a major highway (much the way 90 and 95 run through Boston). That highway was part of Robert Moses' grand plan to run highways all through Manhattan, anther piece of which - a major highway across 14th Street - led to the rise of community organizer Jane Jacobs and a whole movement around the idea of the livable city. The community activism around that idea led to the collapse of the plan and the general diminishment of Moses' control over urban planning.
But Westway refused to die. For years and years after, various versions of Westway would crop up, be discussed and shot down. Much of the elevated highway was gradually dismantled and land reclaimed along the waterfront, an imperfect plan that has restored a good deal of waterfront parkland coexisting uneasily with cruise line docks and ferry terminals. But I remember through the eighties (especially in my college years) reading about various iterations of the Westway plan (which helped also end the imperial Mayoralty of Ed Koch), and the controversies that ensued.
I mention this because one of those plans, people forget, was related to Trump's Riverside Drive projects, which recently rose to prominence when the residents wanted the Trump name off their buildings. Those buildings were originally part of a plan for many more buildings, built out to the river, which would take the West Side Highway under them. That last bit, in fact, being part of another morphed plan to expand Westway. When Trump got the go ahead to build, the highway expansion was taken off the table, and Trump was forced to pay for a refurbishment and expansion of the 72nd Street 1-2-3 line subway station, a longstanding nightmare for commuters that is heavily oversubscribed at rush hour.
All of this, I'd suggest, is worth remembering as we ask what a President Trump means when he says he has massive plans to increase infrastructure spending.
Obviously, one reason to be concerned is projects like a Westway - big boondoggle projects no one wants and the public doesn't need, shoehorned on communities that may not have the clout to resist. Another reason for concern is that Trump wants a lot of private business involvement in these plans, from which you get ideas like burying a highway to improve luxury condo planning (just ask Boston about The Big Dig). Business interests don't necessarily mean ideas for the public good.
But another big point about Trump's plan is who would benefit from the spending... and that's a lot of coastal states and urban centers, whose infrastructures have been hobbling along for years awaiting an influx of money to do some useful ideas - like a public transportation overhaul and renovating popular stations, for instance. And private business isn't actually out of sync with local governments on wanting to make some of these goals happen.
All of which is to say, in the first of a number of considerations of what a Trump presidency might mean, I wouldn't dismiss the mischief in Trump's infrastructure ideas. Sure, there's handwringing about for profit toll roads and pricey bridges... but the real twist here is that what Trump is advocating could wind up being an extravagant gift to nearly everywhere that rejected his candidacy - billions to do the work on tunnels, roads, public transportation, and airports that's long overdue. The problem is, that work isn't needed in the rural areas looking for revitalization - it's New York, and San Francisco, and LA, and Atlanta... and the list goes on.
This may explain why, already, the process of finding a coalition to pass infrastructure spending is allying strange forces in Congress. Many rural representatives get that the bulk of this largesse is going out of their districts; Democrats get that this is a boon for them. And a real boom in construction and other spending... will simply accentuate an already existing trend drawing young and productive workers towards America's urban centers, not out to the rural communities that have been dying as manufacturing leaves.
To be sure, there's work to be done elsewhere, and some ideas might set up conditions that make unexpected more interesting to business investors - bringing broadband to exurbs and rural communities would make for new opportunities to attract business, just for starters. And as noted, boondoggles are bound to appear (and Trump's already casual approach to ethics would clearly favor some loosey-goosey efforts to steer a gravy train here and there...). But if I just think of things NYC and the region would love to do - the Hudson rail tunnel, really building out the 2nd avenue subway, getting better radar systems to JFK LaGuardia and Newark, making adjustments to Metro North and LIRR and NJ Transit - there's billions just there, just for starters. Multiply that by 20 more major urban centers... you've got an exciting picture. Just exciting for the wrong people, if for the right reasons.
"Give Trump a chance" legislators are saying, and in this, at least, I can agree with Democrats; this really could be the break to a national logjam that we desperately need. It would also up-end a lot of the conventional wisdom about who Trump can help and whether he's the worst thing for liberal values. The questions are a) will Republicans just fall in line knowing the benefits are vastly weighted to their opponents' districts and states and b) if Trump's largesse won't reach those rural white communities, will they yet again feel betrayed?
And the question for the rest of us is, if Trump gives us this gift, will we our reflexive opposition to him go on? I'll take on that one - like Westway, I wouldn't give up on our ability to take the chance at improvement, while repurposing our passionate opposition against all the other things worth opposing. But Trump creating a lasting legacy as the guy who got America rebuilding again? Funny how that would work out, isn't it?