The leading Democratic presidential candidates are all calling for major increases in spending for roads, bridges, rural broadband and other infrastructure needs, but they'll need large increases in tax revenue to pay for their plans.
The Democrats' plans rely far less heavily than private investment than President Donald Trump would. Trump's 2018 budget proposed spending $200 billion “to spur at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments with partners at the State, local, Tribal, and private level.” Trump hasn't pursued the plan with Congress.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argues he can pay for his infrastructure plan by "closing corporate income tax loopholes and overseas tax havens." Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar wants to raise the corporate income tax from 21% to 25% as well as reduce corporate tax incentives.
For all of the candidates, infrastructure spending is a critical part of their proposals to address climate change while creating new jobs. Electric vehicle charging infrastructure, for example, is a key part of some plans, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's and former Vice President Joe Biden's.
The candidates all promise to pour money into rural broadband. Some are proposing as much as $80 billion to $150 billion in new spending, with an emphasis in some cases on helping local communities build networks to fill gaps left by private internet service providers. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, promises to work for a federal law that would prevent states from blocking the establishment of community-run networks.
It's important to note that while there is plenty of support in Congress for infrastructure spending, lawmakers have struggled to figure out how to pay for it. Rural members of both parties have criticized Trump's proposed reliance on private funding, arguing that private investors can't get the return from rural projects that they need.
Congress decided in its most recent surface transportation bill, the 2015 FAST Act, to borrow heavily to pay for the country’s highway and bridge projects rather than raise most of the needed revenue from fuel taxes and other user revenues for the U.S. highway trust fund, as had been done for decades. Federal gasoline and diesel fuel taxes, meanwhile, remain at 1993 levels.
At current spending levels, the highway trust fund will run $15 billion to $20 billion annual deficits in the next several years. The law authorizing trust fund projects expires in September. Nonetheless, congressional action to replace the SAFE Act this year remains doubtful.
Darrin Ross, American Trucking Associations’ vice president for highway policy, says just one of the four Senate committees with authority for a broad transportation bill has taken action so far, and a House committee may soon start drafting a bill. But Ross says, “it is difficult to find bipartisanship in the best of times; in an election year even more so.”
Congress has been providing consistent funding in recent years for ports and inland waterways, and a dedicated barge tax has provided a reliable source of revenue. But at the current pace of funding projects, it will still be years before the Mississippi River locks and dams are rebuilt, a major priority for agricultural shippers.
Meanwhile, farm groups have come to regard broadband as essential to economic success, even survival.
Just a few years ago, the American Farm Bureau Federation said transportation facilities were its clear top priority for rural infrastructure. Now, broadband has joined transportation as the organization’s two priorities for infrastructure spending, says R.J. Carney, an AFBF congressional relations director.
Fortunately, "we’ve seen a lot of bipartisanship in regards to broadband infrastructure," he said. He points to USDA’s ReConnect Program, launched with $600 million in 2018 to provide grants and loans to extend broadband to unserved and underserved rural areas. It was plussed up in December with another $555 million.
The Federal Communications Commission is considering an additional plan to provide $20.4 billion over 10 years for rural broadband expansion.
Here’s a summary of what the six Democratic presidential candidates who qualified for Tuesday’s CNN-Des Moines Register debate in Iowa are proposing for U.S. transportation and internet infrastructure:
Former Vice President Joe Biden wants to spend $1.3 trillion over the next ten years, leveraging private, state and local investments to complete $5 trillion in infrastructure projects. His climate plan calls for “rebuilding our roads, bridges, buildings, the electric grid, and our water infrastructure,” and all “to prevent, reduce, and withstand a changing climate.”
Separately, Biden's Plan for Rural America aims to “modernize the lock and dam system vital to getting rural products to markets (and) … roads to give farms and small-town businesses access to markets.”
Biden says the federal spending would be “paid for by rolling back the Trump tax incentives … reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share … and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.”
He wants to spend over $20 billion to expand broadband in rural America, and says he'll direct agencies to help cities and towns set up their own high-speed internet networks.
Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., proposes boosting investment in national infrastructure as part of his goal to "create good jobs and combat climate change through smart infrastructure investments."
Buttigieg recently expanded on his infrastructure agenda, which now calls for spending $1 trillion on a wide range of infrastructure investments in transportation, clean water and environment. For example, his initial proposal for an American Clean Energy Bank, with capitalization of $250 billion, now calls for spending “$6 billion in grants and loans through the (bank) for states and cities to partner with private companies and unions on installing publicly available charging infrastructure powered by clean energy.”
Buttigieg would add $165 billion to the highway trust fund to ensure it remains solvent through 2029. He wants to “repair half of roads in poor condition and structurally deficient bridges by 2030," including a “$50 billion grant program for states to repair bridges.”
He also proposes spending $5 billion to repair and modernize inland waterways.
He proposes spending $80 billion to expand rural broadband.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says her infrastructure plan will be her “top budget priority” as president. She would strive to get it funded in her first year, if elected, and it begins with repairing, roads and bridges.
Klobuchar proposes $650 billion in federal funding for infrastructure. Like Buttigieg, she wants to create a new government bank to finance projects, a proposal she has pushed in the Senate for years. It would be primed with $25 billion in seed money to help state and local governments leverage private funds to build and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. Plus, she wants several initiatives to issue federally backed bonds, similar to the Obama administration’s Build America Bonds, issued in 2009 and 2010.
Her plan includes expanding broadband to “every household by 2022."
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Klobuchar would pay for her infrastructure proposals with “a number of corporate tax reforms, including adjusting the corporate tax rate to 25% … establishing a financial risk fee on our largest banks, and increasing efforts for tax enforcement.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ infrastructure plan starts with his Senate bill that would provide $75 billion to the Highway Trust Fund and money for freight and passenger rail facilities.
His plan focuses heavily on advancing efficiency of cars, trucks and trains on the nation’s roads and rails, and he wants to fund a dramatic shift to electric vehicles. His plan calls for developing electric vehicle charging infrastructure and providing $2 trillion in grants for people to buy electric-powered vehicles and spending $216 billion to help trucking companies replace diesel trucks with electric ones.
Sanders wants $150 billion in federal grants and technical support for communities lacking good broadband service to build their own “publicly owned and democratically controlled, cooperative, or open-access broadband networks.”
Tom Steyer, a billionaire businessman who was the sixth and last candidate to qualify for Tuesday’s presidential debate, wants $2 trillion invested in an array of climate-resilient infrastructure projects, including $450 billion for highways, bridges and levees, plus $775 billion for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, freight rail and transit systems, and $500 billion more for clean water systems, public lands, parks, and waterways, among other things.
His proposal for $755 billion in “community resilience” projects includes a goal for “universal broadband access to every community in America not currently served.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s infrastructure plans are similar to Sanders’, and her green jobs plan is aimed at creating jobs and addressing climate change. “With $10.7 trillion in federal and private investments, we can turn these opportunities into 10.6 million new, union jobs rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and transitioning to the new clean energy economy,” her website declares. Her priorities are to “rebuild our crumbling transportation infrastructure … build in climate resiliency, and create a transportation system powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels.”
Warren advocates a Green Bank idea described in a Senate bill that she cosponsors. The bank would “mobilize $1 trillion in climate and green infrastructure investments across the country over 30 years.” It would finance “large-scale infrastructure projects that serve the public interest but might not otherwise attract private capital due to risk-return thresholds.”
For rural broadband buildout, Warren’s goals are again similar to Sanders’ and others who allege that giant internet service providers have been “running away with taxpayer dollars” but not getting service to rural areas. She would create an Office of Broadband Access, supplied with $85 billion in grant funds for communities to set up their own public networks.
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