Clinton and Sanders Infrastructure Platforms Go Nowhere Fast

(Photo: AP/Tom Lynn)

Democratic presidential candidates Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton walk on stage before the February 11 debate in Milwaukee.

When the nation’s top infrastructure analysts calculate the cost of the coast-to-coast investments that the United States needs to make in the country’s highways, bridges, dams, mass transit, and water networks, they end up with a number that few minds can grasp.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently issued its quadrennial rundown on the state of the country’s infrastructure. It is a sobering list of dollar signs. To get the country’s drinking water pipes in good working order could cost more than $1 trillion; “high hazard” dam repairs, $21 billion; major urban highways upgrades, $170 billion; deficient bridge replacements, $76 billion. Adding in mass transit, wastewater, hazardous waste disposal, aviation, and other demands means that the U.S. would have to spend an estimated $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to get these assets up to snuff.

There is mounting evidence of the perils posed by the decaying backbone of American commerce and life in the Flint drinking water crisis, the Amtrak crash in Philadelphia, and the Minneapolis bridge collapse. But crowds on the campaign trail do not roar for road works. This election season, they are consumed by worries like income inequality, health-care costs, and terrorism in their own backyards.

Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s infrastructure plans contain all the right words and phrases: “crumbling” and “woefully inadequate” (Sanders) and “infrastructure gap” and “China racing ahead” (Clinton). Their proposed investments, however, fall short of the needs identified by ASCE. Clinton’s proposal to spend $275 billion over five years is well below the six-year, nearly $500 billion President Obama called for in 2015. Sanders’s proposal to spend $1 trillion over five years would move the U.S. closer to ASCE’s goal. But either proposal requires far more funding than Congress is likely to approve if Republicans maintain their control of one or both houses next year.

To spur new construction and repair, Clinton wants to see the establishment of a national infrastructure bank, which would provide direct loans, loan guarantees, and other types of credit to states and localities. Sanders also called for an infrastructure bank in his “Rebuild America Act” legislation.

The idea of a national infrastructure bank has actually been percolating for decades. Presidential candidate Bill Clinton called for establishing one when he campaigned in 1992. Former senators Christopher Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat, and Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, did, too, in 2007. Obama put one on the table in 2011. None of the bank plans has ever gained serious traction, however.

While an infrastructure bank would obviously be an important funding source for major construction projects, it is not an idea that would energize the average American voter in November. Which is likely why Clinton recently announced a $125 billion “Economic Revitalization Initiative.” Designed to appeal to “communities that have been left out and left behind,” the Clinton plan would direct $50 billion to an “Infrastructure for Opportunity Fund” that includes monies for mass transit, drinking and wastewater, and Internet access projects.

Clinton has also signaled her intention to pursue increased funding for federal transportation competitive grant programs (known by the acronyms TIGER and TIFIA) so that local communities can get direct access to federal funds, among other benefits, without having to rely on state officials to parcel the funds out.

Sanders’s Rebuild America proposal would appropriate mammoth, multi-year, multibillion sums to passenger and freight rail, airports, dams, drinking water, broadband, the electric grid and other infrastructure sectors.

Both candidates’ plans would likely be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill if Congress remains under Republican rule. Republicans have already jumped all over Clinton’s plan, seeing it as a roster of stealth tax increases. Sanders’s more ambitious proposal, which he introduced as legislation, has secured just one co-sponsor, Senator Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who plans to retire.

However, the recent passage of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST), a multi-year, multibillion transportation sector program, has apparently convinced some in Congress that there’s less need to spend more on the highway and mass transit programs that a President Clinton or a President Sanders would seek support for. Not that it’s clear from either of the two candidates’ plans where the funding is supposed to come from. Both Clinton and Sanders lean on corporations to pay for their infrastructure projects. The savings from Clinton’s “business tax reforms” and Sanders’s “closing corporate loopholes” appear to be the primary revenue generators for their plans. Unfortunately, those tweaks and loophole-closings won’t generate enough revenue to fund either Democrat’s program—even if Congress can be persuaded to adjust the corporate tax codes. These are ideas that presidential candidates are keen to tout but that federal lawmakers are less inclined act on.

For a preview of coming attractions on tapping the business sector for transportation and infrastructure revenues, look no further than Massachusetts. There, a 2013 attempt by former Governor Deval Patrick to use a computer and software services tax he managed to get through the legislature to inject money into the state’s decrepit transportation sector was ultimately repealed (with astonishing speed) after protests by state business leaders. The corporate and business lobbyists who would fight tax-code changes would be deployed even faster, and with more deadly aim, if Clinton’s or Sanders’s proposals ever reach the Hill.

The current politics of infrastructure and transportation spending box Clinton and Sanders into what has become the Democratic Party’s default position in an era of divided government: Doing only what government can do with a minimum of tax dollars until the next water crisis, train crash, or bridge collapse facilitates a different course of action. But reactive outrage when tragedy strikes is no substitute for bold ideas with real money attached to them—as any engineer in Flint, Philadelphia, or Minneapolis knows.

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