Clinton vs Trump vs Congress on fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure
Clinton’s $275 billion, five-year plan, not surprisingly, contains solid detail. In place of specifics, Trump’s plan, which proposes $1 trillion in spending and leverage over the same period, depends, as you might have expected, on his self-declared ability to make good deals, tremendous deals, better than anybody else’s deals.
Conor Dougherty reported Sunday that economists—at least the liberal ones—hope that the candidates’ support will finally break through the resistance in Congress to tackling the embarrassing and costly problems caused by the rotten and obsolete infrastructure of the richest nation on the planet:
These are only plans, of course. Either would have to get through Congress and the inevitable acrimony over any proposal to raise taxes or add to the national debt.
Still, the candidates’ agreement, combined with growing accord among economists that increased spending on infrastructure could invigorate the American economy and raise overall living standards, has led to a cautious optimism that some sort of big public works push is coming, regardless of who is elected.
Proposals for rebuilding and innovating the U.S. infrastructure has been put forth for more than a decade. The closest we’ve had to boosted spending in that realm was President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus program. But only about $30 billion of the $800 billion stimulus went for infrastructure, even though that money accounted for thousands of individual projects.
Compared to the need, that’s a drop in the bucket. According to the quadrennial “report card” of the American Society of Civil Engineers issued in 2013, the U.S. actually should spend $3.6 trillion on infrastructure by 2020.
So how much is enough? Bernie Sanders was pushing for a $1 trillion spending plan on infrastructure over a decade when he began his campaign, but he later changed that to five years. Bill McKibben has written that we need to mobilize to confront climate change with the same emergency-mindedness that we did in World War II. Other critics, dating back to 2007, have called for a “Green New Deal”—with or without that actual label—which creates infrastructure relevant to the 21st century, producing jobs and laying the foundation for a sustainable economy, one that doesn’t wreck the planet.
Whatever the actual amount needed, it’s a lot more than has been proposed. The U.S. now spends in the range of $600 billion every year on the military for national security. But security, not to mention the needs of a vibrant economy, is about far more than guns. We ought to be spending at least the same amount on infrastructure as we do on the Pentagon.
I know, I know. Good luck with that given congressional gridlock.
Especially these days, we’re told “No can do!” when even the mildest new policy proposal is suggested. Can’t-do-it, can’t-get-enough-votes, got-to-be-practical, we’re told.
So why propose policy changes that have no chance of being adopted until a more willing and wise Congress is in office? Because innovative ideas, in transportation and other arenas, shouldn’t wait to be presented until we have the power to implement them. Promoting these ideas and others should be a big part of the process that will help us gain the political clout to make them happen.
No matter how ferocious the obstacles, our leaders should not be shy about speaking for what’s actually needed no matter how tough it would be to get these proposals passed.
Here are four specifics on infrastructure spending they might suggest, though these are certainly not all that should be done:
No. 1: Revisit former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s 30/10 initiative. A voter-passed measure in Los Angeles will ultimately provide $18 billion for public transit projects, much of it for an extension of the city’s subway and light-rail lines. But that revenue comes in over 30 years, which means additional decades of congestion and pollution that the projects are designed to relieve. Villaraigosa wanted to build the funded projects in 10 years by getting the federal government to lend the transit authority the money up front (to be repaid as the local tax revenue comes in). The idea didn’t pass muster in Congress. But it’s a good one and Democrats should propose it again.
No. 2: Invest $2 trillion between now and 2030 to enhance rail transportation, adding electrified intercity high-speed rail lines for both passengers and freight. Too expensive? During World War II, though more deeply in debt as a proportion of its gross domestic product than ever before, the United States, (having no choice) went deeper into debt and retooled and expanded its manufacturing base to produce the equipment that helped it win the war and lay the foundation for two generations of prosperity. We need to behave as if the current situation equals the emergency faced in 1941. Because it does. Transportation’s use of fossil fuel is one of the largest contributors to climate change. And if we intend to take climate change seriously, rail transportation needs a makeover. Rail transportation is already extremely efficient, but taking it off diesel, speeding it up, and building new lines that compete with air travel will make it even more so. Electrifying rail means a lot more industrial-scale green energy.
No. 3: Implement federal mileage-based user fees. The social costs of highway use differ based on the type of vehicle. Passenger vehicles cause more congestion; trucks cause more pavement damage. If motorists were required to pay for all the costs their driving incurred, they would pay a lot more than they do now. In other words, they are being subsidized. Perhaps policymakers would want to continue some level of subsidy. But well-designed MBUFs would go far to increasing highway efficiency by encouraging motorists to consolidate trips and discouraging trips in which costs of driving exceeded benefits.
No. 4: Provide federal matching dollars to deliver high-quality municipal and rural broad-band nationwide. One means of cutting down transportation congestion and fossil-fuel addiction that helps it thrive is telecommuting. Although this has yet to become quite the juggernaut that was once predicted for it, an increasingly large cohort of the population does “work from home,” and more would no doubt do so if they were encouraged in various ways.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)