Clinton, Trump bring infrastructure hopes to White House

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Whether it’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the White House next year, one thing is certain: Infrastructure spending is going to be on the agenda. 

Transportation advocates say they are more encouraged than ever, as both candidates have called for making massive investments in fixing the nation’s crumbling roads and bridges.

{mosads}But whether their plans can muster enough support in Congress — which will require coming up with a suitable, long-term funding solution — is far less clear.

“There’s very strong support in the realization that infrastructure is a federal responsibility,” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on transportation. “But here’s the sticking point, the 800-pound gorilla: How do you pay for it?” 

Clinton’s plan

Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has made investments in the nation’s infrastructure a cornerstone of her job-creation plan and promised to put forth a proposal within her first 100 days in office.

“Sec. Clinton has been unequivocal: She believes that these investments in our future simply cannot wait,” a spokesperson for Clinton’s campaign said in a statement. “She has vowed to work tirelessly to break through any Washington gridlock she faces to fulfill this promise.”

Talk like that from Clinton has spurred optimism among transportation advocates.

“She’s committed to make it a 100 day priority, which is very unusual,” said Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department. “We’ve never seen that by a candidate for president.”

The former first lady’s sweeping, five-year plan includes $250 billion in direct spending on new and improved infrastructure. It also emphasizes cutting the regulatory red tape that slows the construction of new projects and reauthorizes a Build America Bonds program to stimulate billions of additional dollars in infrastructure investments. 

During a speech near Detroit this summer, Clinton vowed to work with Congress to advance the biggest investment in new jobs since World War II.

“We will put Americans to work building and modernizing our roads, our bridges, our tunnels, our railways, our ports, our airports,” Clinton said. “We are way overdue for this, my friends. We are living off the investments that were made by our parents and grandparents.”


Infrastructure bank

Clinton’s vision also includes a $25 billion national infrastructure bank “to get private funds off the sidelines.” The idea has long been touted by Democrats, but has yet to get off the ground.

The bank would provide low-interest loans and other financial assistance to encourage investors to back national infrastructure projects. Clinton maintains that seed funding for the bank could spur more than $250 billion in spending on infrastructure projects throughout the country, as well as create higher paying jobs.

“What she’s proposing is a very realistic number,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We could very efficiently spend an extra $275 billion.”

Clinton’s plan would be paid for through business tax reform. Although she has been vague on details, Democrats and Republicans have long been split on how to reform the business tax code, making any tax overhaul a heavy lift in Congress.

“She’s talking about doing it in the context if tax reform, but I’m sure she would be open to other ideas,” DeFazio said.

Some lawmakers who were critical of President Obama’s economic stimulus package are likely to be wary of another major infrastructure proposal that promises to create jobs.

“A lot of folks, including myself, held out great, great hope,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “He talked about high-speed rail connecting the cities. And they took the money and squandered it.”

Obama made transportation projects a focus of his stimulus plan, which devoted $105 billion to infrastructure, partly in the form of competitive grants. But critics say the “shovel-ready” projects took too long to get off the ground, and they question whether the spending created as many jobs as promised.  

Trump’s plan

If Clinton’s infrastructure proposal faces an uphill battle, however, then Trump’s may need to climb a mountain.

The Republican nominee has long talked about the need to fix the nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges and has often lamented that the country’s “third-world” airports and transit systems are falling behind those in countries like China.

Trump said last month at the Detroit Economic Club that he will “build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, sea ports and airports.”

The real estate mogul has vowed to double Clinton’s $275 billion proposal, bringing his plan to over a half-trillion dollars. 

“I could put my faith in a businessman who has proven himself on projects,” Mica said. 

But Trump has yet to lay out a specific policy proposal. He has only said that he would raise money for transportation projects through a fund, sold as infrastructure bonds, and that “people, investors and citizens” would put money into the fund.

“You do need to pay bonds back,” DeFazio said. “Infrastructure bonds aren’t free.”

The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment. 

Trump backs borrowing

Trump has indicated in the past that he supports borrowing and spending in order to boost economic growth, which is a major break from traditional Republican principles that could spur fierce opposition from within his own party.

“The good news is that the two leading presidential candidates seem to agree with each other (and with America’s business community) about the importance of investing in infrastructure,” Laura Bonavita, director of communications and strategy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a recent blog post.

“Problem is, we haven’t heard much about their plans to actually pay for these critical investments. American business leaders want to ensure that any infrastructure plan would include a long-term sustainable funding source to meet our country’s future investment needs. “

Washington lawmakers have struggled to produce long-term funding solutions for the Highway Trust Fund. The pot of money supports transportation and infrastructures projects throughout the country and is financed by the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised in over 20 years.

A recently enacted five-year surface transportation bill was financed by a series of budgetary gimmicks, underscoring the difficulties of coming up with a way to pay for something even with widespread, bipartisan support.

Even Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cast some doubt on whether there was hope for major infrastructure legislation anytime soon, because Congress passed a highway bill last December.

“We passed the biggest highway bill, the long-term highway bill, for the first time since the 1990s just a few months ago,” Ryan said in an address to the Economic Club of New York. “So that’s already in place, and 10 percent above baseline spending on mass transit and highways.”

Still, infrastructure advocates remain hopeful that the issue has moved up on the public’s radar this election cycle, which could ultimately step up pressure on Congress — and give them some political cover — to help the next administration get something done.

“Either Clinton or Trump would emphasize infrastructure” in office, said Ed Rendel, a Clinton surrogate and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. “Both candidates have made a lot of their pitch about economic development, and the best way to create well-paying jobs is infrastructure.”

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Paul Ryan
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