How To Spend A Trillion Dollars

Mar 16, 2017
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump says he wants to spend a trillion dollars over the next decade on infrastructure. Let's put that in perspective. The U.S. is already spending 2.5 trillion over the next decade. So this would be a 40 percent jump. Ailsa Chang from NPR's Planet Money team helps us figure out what do you actually get for a trillion dollars.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: A trillion dollars is the kind of money most of us will never get the chance to blow. So it's sort of hard to imagine what a trillion-dollar spending spree might actually look like. Here's one way to picture it.

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DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: We are pushing ahead with a great road program.

CHANG: The last time the country threw almost the same level of spending at infrastructure was under President Eisenhower, when he launched the interstate highway system.

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EISENHOWER: This is the greatest construction program in the entire - in the entire history of the nation.

CHANG: Of course, Eisenhower went all in on one kind of infrastructure. If President Trump wanted to do the same, let's price it out. I called up Robert Puentes for help. He runs a century-old transportation think tank called the Eno Center. So how much would a mile of highway cost?

ROBERT PUENTES: A mile of highway would be about $8 to $10 million per mile in urban areas, less than that in rural areas and less populated places.

CHANG: OK. So there are about 46,000 miles of highway in the U.S., which means you could rebuild the entire system for just half a trillion. Or forget roads. Let's say we go all in on airports.

PUENTES: New airports are tough - depends on kind of where they are...

CHANG: Sure.

PUENTES: And their - what they look like. You could probably spend about 6 billion, $7 billion.

CHANG: And since there are about 380 primary airports in the U.S., you could rebuild half the country's airports for a trillion dollars. But the president doesn't want to go all in on airports. Basically, what Trump wants to do is everything.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will rebuild our roads, our bridges, our tunnels, highways, airports, schools, hospitals.

CHANG: It sounds awesome. But how far does a trillion dollars actually go? Let's stay in New York City, where I am. And I'll show you how easy it is to blow this money.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Stand clear of the closing doors, please.

CHANG: All right. I'm riding a Second Avenue subway right now.

Just adding three subway stops on this line costs $4.5 billion dollars.

I just rode the subway one stop, which means I just burned through a billion and a half dollars. That took about 73 seconds.

Then go to the newly built transportation hub down at the World Trade Center. It's called the Oculus. It's a gleaming white soaring cathedral-like structure.

I'm standing in basically a giant hallway right now. It's like the lobby for a train station. And this whole place cost $4 billion.

Then let's say you want to rebuild two aging bridges over the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee Bridge. That will cost another 6 billion. I called Puentes back up to see what other projects need money in New York City alone.

PUENTES: You want to take a bus in from New Jersey, you wind up at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at Eighth Avenue. That's about $10 billion.

CHANG: To rebuild.

PUENTES: Just to rebuild it.

CHANG: OK. And if you're arriving by train...

PUENTES: You have to take the new tunnel under the Hudson River. That's going to cost about $20 billion.

CHANG: Twenty billion. The city is also committed to other projects. It plans to spend 20 billion for housing, community centers and hospitals and another 30 billion for water mains and sewers. I have now ticked off almost a hundred billion dollars of projects in New York City alone. Trump's plan calls for 100 billion a year for the whole country.

We're out of money.

PUENTES: We're out of money.

CHANG: Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.