What Does President Trump Mean for Our Nation's Infrastructure?

The infamous Wollman Rink project might provide a clue.

Wollman Rink
Just a few months ago, I wrote in a dismissive manner about the surprising rise of Donald Trump. I compared him with the late Gov. George Corley Wallace of Alabama -- a fiery populist who ran for president and rose farther and faster in the polls than anyone expected by saying outrageous things. It was the 1960s and I experienced his campaign style up close and personal while attending college in Alabama. I naturally assumed that just like Wallace, Trump would soon pass from the scene, becoming little more than an interesting footnote in the history of the 2016 campaign.

I got that one wrong. Now I find myself facing a harsh new reality and assessing the future under President Trump. What can we expect? What will life be like in "Trumplandia" -- especially for those of us that have made a career of government and hold a deep appreciation for public policy?

Perhaps a harbinger of things to come can be gleaned from history. Interestingly, this factoid also provides a segue to City Accelerator and a direct link to the recent focus on infrastructure. In the 1980s, a political firestorm erupted over the repair of Wollman Rink in New York's Central Park. The rink was -- and is still -- a popular feature in the park. Built in 1949, it served as a multi-use facility for ice skating in the winter and performances in warmer months. It was sometimes featured as an attractive backdrop in popular movies such as Love Story. As time passed and municipal budgets tightened, the rink fell into serious disrepair in the 1970s -- the hard years of New York City's financial crisis. In 1980, Wollman Rink closed for extensive repairs.

Plans called for a two-year renovation project and a budget of $9.1 million, but after six years and $13 million, the project was not even close to completion. In Trump language, it was "a total disaster." Trump proposed a solution to then-Mayor Ed Koch: He would finish the job in four months for $2.5 million. Koch was doubtful, but eventually agreed to an arrangement that allowed Trump to use his own private financing in return for a franchise to operate the rink from 1987 to 1991 to try and recover his investment. Trump completed the project two months ahead of schedule and $250,000 under budget. Over the ensuing years, there have been some changes in management, but recent articles report that Trump's logo is still prominently displayed on Wollman Rink today. (Note: There is a rich trove of information on this topic on the web. It is gloriously readable and searchable. I highly recommend it.)

As the Wollman Rink drama was playing out in 1986 and 1987, I was seeking my first elected office: Chattanooga Commissioner of Public Works. The privatization of public works and infrastructure was a hot topic, and I watched from a distance but with rapt attention to see whether conventional public management of the project would win out or if the cocky 39-year-old upstart would be victorious. It was a battle of titanic egos, and the weapons were razor sharp wits and even sharper tongues. In the course of their ongoing contests, Trump called Koch a "moron" with "no talent and only moderate intelligence," and Koch responded by saying that "if Trump is squealing like a stuck pig I must have done something right." He characterized Trump as a "piggy, piggy, piggy" and "greedy, greedy, greedy." For all ardent fans of such things (as I am), I recommend a short PBS video featuring Trump and Koch from that time.

I'm not new to transitions. Last summer I passed my 70th birthday and can recall a number of national transitions over the years that were upsetting -- not unlike the one we are beginning to experience. In certain ways, all transitions in top national leadership are disorienting.

No doubt the most traumatic transition in my lifetime occurred following the assassination of JFK. I can replay those tragic days in my mind and quickly conjure the strong emotions sparked by that experience. It was the heady days of "Camelot" in America and we (the young) took Kennedy's words about "the torch is passed to a new generation" as meaning us -- the rising tide of Baby Boomers (even though he really wasn't talking about us). Suddenly we saw a young, handsome and vibrant leader with an elegant command of language shockingly replaced by someone who appeared to us at the time to be a crude rube with none of the star-like qualities we had grown to admire. The shift was hard to accept. Of course, we eventually came to appreciate that what Lyndon Baines Johnson lacked in physical beauty or courtly manners, he compensated with political understanding and crafty, perhaps even Machiavellian skill. Most would say that the significant civil rights legislation and other transforming measures of the 1960s might never have happened if not for LBJ. So somehow we manage.
And so it goes today. I am optimistic that things will be better than some expect or at least not as bad as many fear. The great strength of our political system is that it is in a constant state of bloodless revolution (so far), and leaders suddenly thrust into new roles often rise to the occasion and display strengths and qualities previously not seen or exercised. I do not wish to trivialize the situation. Jousting with Ed Koch is one thing -- wrestling with Vladimir Putin is quite another. But whatever the outcome of the Trump transition and its impact on the world stage, when considering the future through the more limited lens of local government projects and programs let me offer some encouragement.
Trump has proposed the repair and upgrading of infrastructure as a principal initiative of his administration. It is also a focus of City Accelerator. And if we've learned anything from the history of Trump's early brushes with public infrastructure projects like the Wollman Rink and verbal battles with loquacious leaders like Mayor Ed Koch, at least we can be reasonably certain the trip will be interesting.

Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.