Democratic Candidates Outline Their Infrastructure Ideas

Four of the Democratic presidential candidates took part in a moderated discussion of infrastructure issues in Las Vegas on February 16.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer participated in the forum, which was sponsored by United for Infrastructure (the conglomeration of associations and groups that used to be called Infrastructure Week*) and was moderated by Gerald Seib and Jeanne Cummings of the Wall Street Journal. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Mike Bloomberg and President Trump were also invited to participate, but declined.

None of the candidates were on the stage at the same time (hence the title “forum,” not “debate”), and the order went Biden, Steyer, Klobuchar, Buttigieg. The moderators asked a couple of identical questions to every candidate, asked them some individual questions based on their previously released policy plans, and added a few questions for each candidate from the audience or the Internet.

New capacity versus state of good repair. The moderators asked each candidate a variant of the question “how do you prioritize repairing and maintaining existing infrastructure versus building new systems?” Biden proclaimed it to be a false choice, that one can fix existing infrastructure in a modern way. He later added an example of ports, where the dredging is constant, old-fashioned, maintenance work that has to be done, but new capacity increases can also be ongoing with additional infrastructure on the land side. Klobuchar also said that one has to do both state-of-good-repair and new system construction. Buttigieg said that his was the only candidate infrastructure plan that explicitly prioritized state-of-good-repair of existing roads ahead of new road construction.

Paying for it. While there was extended discussion of the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund in particular and of how to pay for infrastructure in general, none of the four candidates volunteered to jump on the grenade called “gas tax increase.” Biden proposed an increase in the corporate tax rate and some kind of additional corporate minimum tax as pay-fors. Steyer noted that the gas tax was “a super politically sensitive thing” and also fell back on corporate tax increases, and taxes on investment income, as pay-fors. Klobuchar suggested a specific, four point increase in the corporate income tax rate as a pay-for, along with an infrastructure bank, Build America Bonds, and other leveraging programs. And Buttigieg suggested that debt financing of the Trust Fund revenue gap could be an option until a vehicle miles-traveled fee could be developed (assuming, he said, that the “Big Brother aspects” of such a fee could be worked out).

Land use/NIMBYism. Several candidates were asked if the federal government should get more involved in land use policy (historically a local government issue), particularly green infrastructure projects (Cummings used the example of the NIMBY’d-to-death Cape Cod wind farm). Steyer framed the issue (as he did many others) in terms of the “climate emergency” he would declare on the first day of his presidency, enabling a lot of use of executive power (bypassing Congress), and said that to the extent that green infrastructure is needed to combat the climate crisis, he would federalize some of those decisions. (But he also said that the most federal eminent domain projects he could see were pipeline projects, which Steyer presumably would eliminate.) Buttigieg said that if you implement carbon pricing, a lot of those issues would sort themselves out.

Project delivery. The moderators asked candidates for their opinions on the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to NEPA planning rules, and the general need for expedited permitting of infrastructure projects. Biden said that permitting is a problem but thought that Republicans had the wrong answer. Biden said that what was needed was one designate official at the top levels of government to ride herd on the various federal agencies and keep them to their deadlines. (Ed. Note: Sounds a lot like this guy.) Klobuchar said she was always open to examining existing rules and regulations but that she was not willing to compromise on safety or environmental standards. Buttigieg was asked a different question (about South Bend’s use of a Trump regulatory easing program related to water), but he responded by saying that the Obama Administration approach on that issue was money-focused, not outcome-focused, and that more outcome-focused approaches need to be used in federal regulations generally.

Electric vehicles. When it comes to the cost of electric vehicles, Steyer suggested some kind of plan to use federal money to buy existing internal combustion autos if a customer was, in turn, buying an EV, instead of actual subsidies for EVs themselves. He also expressed his believe that EVs would soon become cost-competitive with ICE vehicles on their own. On the subject of charging stations, the moderators asked whose job it was to pay to construction a nationwide network of charging stations. (After all, there was no federal program that paid to build gasoline stations across the land a century ago.) Steyer said that gas stations were always a for-profit model and that the extent to which federal aid would be necessary for EV charging would depend on the extent to which a profit model can be worked out. Buttigieg said that there could possibly be a public-private funding model, but an exclusively federal program might be necessary. He also said that emerging battery technology could possibly extend the range of EVs to the point that fewer charging stations would be necessary.

Airport PFCs. Several candidates were asked specific audience/Internet questions about whether or not they would support an increase in the maximum allowable passenger facility charge (PFC) that airports can charge enplaning passengers. The current cap of $4.50 was set in 2000 and has not been increased for inflation since then. Biden said that yes, he would sign a PFC increase bill (though he said that high speed rail is also needed to relieve some demand at congested airports). Klobuchar also said she would support an increase “in a way that is fair.”

Davis-Bacon. Labor unions were part of the forum sponsorship group, and most of the candidates went out of their way to express their support for attaching Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements to federal infrastructure spending. (Most existing programs have statutory prevailing wage requirements, but each time Congress creates a new funding program, the issue has to be re-litigated anew.)

State/local tax increases. Buttigieg was asked a specific audience question about how some municipalities have been increasing their own taxes to pay for increased infrastructure spending, but others have not, and how should federal dollars be distributed in a fair way to reflect that difference. He responded that it was a “both-and” – federal dollars should match state and local funds in order to encourage municipalities that take the “courageous step” to tax themselves, but that such matching grants should be on top of a basic “floor” of federal assistance to meet basic human needs.

The transportation portions of several candidate infrastructure plans can be compared here.

*Buttigieg made a point of saying that it was time to take Infrastructure Week back from “being a punchline.”

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