Election 2020: Is Infrastructure an Opportunity for Political Unity?

You don’t hear a lot about fixing roads, bridges, airports and waterways in the campaign. At least, not everyday. Yet heavy infrastructure and transportation projects will almost certainly be key to any pandemic economic recovery plan in 2021.

Both parties have been saying for years that they want to push big infrastructure projects, and the economic hardship brought about by the pandemic could be a catalyst for action after the election, when Congress and the White House pivot from politics to policy.

For organizations like Lime and the United Motorcoach Association, as well as industries from airlines to energy, there could be a great deal at stake—and plenty of advocacy ahead.  

Yet while infrastructure is an area where parties say they might cooperate, they have thus far been unable to pull together. Both are willing to spend large amounts, but they can’t agree how much. They also don’t agree on where the money will come from or on how to structure the projects.

The disagreement suggests the outcome of November’s election could determine the future of transportation and infrastructure spending. 

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Relief Package Momentum

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which studies U.S. infrastructure, predicts that the country will under-invest in public projects by $2 trillion between 2016 and 2025. “Congress should make infrastructure investment a centerpiece of its immediate response and long-term economic recovery strategy,” the organization concluded in a report on the impact of the pandemic.

Infrastructure spending could get the momentum it needs if it is tied to an economic relief package. After the election, one potential outcome is a New Deal-style infrastructure jobs program that could be an important part of the Washington agenda. 

How that package looks will depend on who is in charge. Joe Biden released an economic recovery plan, called Build Back Better, that contains a $2 trillion clean energy and infrastructure plan. The plan includes money for roads, bridges and waterways; a provision for universal broadband access; a proposal to make the energy industry carbon neutral by 2035; investment in zero-emissions public transportation; a plan to upgrade and weatherize 4 million buildings and 2 million homes; construction of 1.5 million new homes and other elements.

Ultimately, the quickest way to make infrastructure more than a long-standing joke on Capitol Hill is for the same political party to control Congress and the White House. If Biden wins and Democrats take the Senate, a bill inspired by Biden’s plan has a chance. But if Congress remains divided, the process is likely to slow as key party differences take hold. Democrats are likely to spend more and include a broader range of provisions, including those designed to address climate change. Republicans are more likely to push state control of projects, champion public-private partnerships and favor rural communities.

Trump on Infrastructure

President Donald Trump has traditionally been a major advocate of infrastructure spending, and it was a pillar of his 2016 campaign. However, infrastructure is one area where Trump failed to deliver on campaign promises.

“Under his administration, federal investments on roads and bridges as a share of the economy have remained stagnant, while federal spending on water infrastructure projects have fallen to a 30-year low,” The Washington Post reported this month.

In the current campaign, Trump has spoken far less about infrastructure than he did in 2016. He has often gotten ahead of his own party in terms of the amount of money he wants to spend on infrastructure.

For example, at the start of the pandemic, Trump embraced the $2 trillion price tag that is often attached to a comprehensive U.S. infrastructure plan. Yet that amount of spending is larger than Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have endorsed.

Trump’s argument is that the current low interest rates decrease the impact of federal borrowing for infrastructure projects. An infrastructure plan, he tweeted at the start of the pandemic, “should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

The top Republican in the Senate, however, has a different view. “We have an equal interest in doing an infrastructure bill. We don’t have an equal interest in borrowing money for future generations to pay for it,” McConnell said in April. “I agree with the president. Infrastructure is important. I just don’t believe that we should be borrowing, adding to the national debt.”

Trump later embraced a $1 trillion price-tag for an infrastructure proposal, but that also stalled, with members of his own party criticizing it as “too rich” and a “heavy lift.”

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‘At a Crossroads’

In terms of surface transportation spending, Congress will start with a clean slate in January. When the five-year highway bill passed in 2015, known as the Fast Act, expired in September, Congress authorized and Trump signed a one-year extension.

Though both the House and Senate passed highway bills, those have been set aside and the new Congress will be free to negotiate a new highway bill next year, which could become part of a broader conversation on infrastructure. Funding for the bill is sure to be an issue because the Highway Trust Fund spends more than the government makes in fuel taxes. Since 2008, Congress has had to put more than $140 billion in general revenues into the Highway Trust Fund. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993.

Ultimately, there are plenty of projects for Washington to choose from—far more than just roads—if the White House and Congress do undertake an infrastructure bill. The American Society of Civil Engineers issues an assessment every four years of the nation’s infrastructure. Their latest, in 2017, gave the U.S. a D+ for the quality of its systems.

“Our nation is at a crossroads,” the association wrote in their report. “Deteriorating U.S. infrastructure is impeding our ability to compete in the thriving global economy, and improvements are necessary to ensure our country is built for the future. While we have made some progress, reversing the trajectory after decades of underinvestment in our infrastructure requires transformative action from Congress, states, infrastructure owners, and the American people.”

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