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Congress Finally Does a Highway Bill, But Can’t Clear Decks For The Next President

A five-year measure sets up a whole new spending issue for the 2016 race.

For a can­did­ate look­ing to make a splash with a jobs plan, the words “re­pair,” “crum­bling,” and “in­fra­struc­ture” in some com­bin­a­tion usu­ally makes for a good ap­plause line.

Here’s Hil­lary Clin­ton at an event in Mas­sachu­setts on Monday: “To build a strong eco­nomy for our fu­ture, we must start by build­ing strong in­fra­struc­ture today.” Bernie Sanders has com­pared low spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture to the cost of the Ir­aq War. Even Don­ald Trump boas­ted on Twit­ter “I know how to build, oth­er pols only know how to talk” after a deadly Amtrak crash last spring.

With the pas­sage of a five-year, $305 bil­lion trans­port­a­tion bill, Con­gress says it’s ad­dressed the prob­lem—for now.

The Fix­ing Amer­ica’s Sur­face Trans­port­a­tion Act is the first long-term trans­port­a­tion bill in more than a dec­ade, of­fer­ing a meas­ure of se­cur­ity for state agen­cies and even slightly in­creas­ing spend­ing. In a joint state­ment, the bill’s Sen­ate and House spon­sors said the bill “provides long-term cer­tainty for states and loc­al gov­ern­ments, and good re­forms and im­prove­ments to the pro­grams that sus­tain our roads, bridges, trans­it, and pas­sen­ger-rail sys­tem.”

After deal­ing with the trans­port­a­tion reau­thor­iz­a­tion bills on-and-off for the bet­ter part of a dec­ade (since 2005, Con­gress has passed more than 30 short-term ex­ten­sions, the longest one just 18 months), the is­sue will fi­nally be off the floor for sev­er­al years. So does this make in­fra­struc­ture an out-of-sight, out-of-mind is­sue?

“Hu­man nature and the nature of polit­ics is such that if an is­sue is fes­ter­ing and it doesn’t look like any­one’s deal­ing with it, then it’s cur­rent. Once the pres­id­ent signs that bill, I think it takes the heat out of this is­sue,” said former Rep. Jim Walsh. “But it shouldn’t. This bill doesn’t solve all of our prob­lems … and the can­did­ates need to lead the de­bate.”

In­stead, Rep. Bill Shuster said that writers were “look­ing for money un­der every cush­ion in Wash­ing­ton and around the coun­try” and cobbled to­geth­er $70 bil­lion from sources like a Fed­er­al Re­serve sur­plus ac­count and sales from the coun­try’s oil re­serves. That means no re­lief for already-strug­gling trans­port­a­tion agen­cies at the end of this bill.

Ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice, the next five-year trans­port­a­tion bill would need up­wards of $100 bil­lion on top of gas-tax rev­en­ue.

And that bill’s go­ing to come due right at the end of the next pres­id­ent’s first term.

Rep. Pete De­Fazio, rank­ing mem­ber on the Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee, said that meant that it was something that should bear men­tion on the trail, es­pe­cially giv­en the “pre­tend pay-fors” that were on the cur­rent bill.

“It’s time for people to get real,” said De­Fazio. “This place can’t get real and we’re stuck with this crap.”

Ed Rendell, former Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor of Pennsylvania and co­chair of the in­fra­struc­ture group Build­ing Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, said he’d grade the bill as “maybe a D at best, prob­ably in­com­plete.” But the next pres­id­ent, he said, had an op­por­tun­ity to make it bet­ter.

“Come and say ‘it’s not good enough’ and get what you want in,” said Rendell, who has ad­vised the Clin­ton cam­paign on the is­sue. “Who­ever our next pres­id­ent is has got to ad­dress this crisis. And to think this patch­work bill is all we need, well that’s just ludicrous.”

Amer­ica’s in­fra­struc­ture crisis has been well-doc­u­mented—the Amer­ic­an So­ci­ety of Civil En­gin­eers has giv­en the coun­try’s over­all in­fra­struc­ture a D+ on its re­port card, with roads, avi­ation, dams, and in­land wa­ter­ways scor­ing at a D or be­low.

Just as well-doc­u­mented, though, is the budget short­fall. In the same ASCE re­port, the group es­tim­ated it would take $3.6 tril­lion by 2020 to get back in shape. And nobody’s got a re­li­able plan to cov­er that gap.

Rais­ing the fed­er­al gas tax—which would only cov­er roads and trans­it op­er­a­tions—has been a polit­ic­al non­starter, even as states have done it. And no can­did­ate would reas­on­ably pro­pose a tax in­crease on the trail, which has meant that sub­stant­ive trans­port­a­tion plans aren’t usu­ally staples in pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns.

Clin­ton this week has been pro­mot­ing a five-year, $275 bil­li­on in­fra­struc­ture planthat would go on top of in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing au­thor­ized by Con­gress. The plan would spend $250 bil­li­on in dir­ect pub­lic in­vest­ment, with an­oth­er $25 bil­li­on to start an in­fra­struc­ture bank that would lever­age fund­ing for large in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects. But the fund­ing mech­an­ism is simply a vague “busi­ness-tax re­form.”

Sanders has pitched a $1 tril­lion in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing pack­age, backed in part by le­gis­la­tion that would cut down on cor­por­ate tax loop­holes.

From the right, however, there’s been less en­thu­si­asm for an in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing pack­age. Rand Paul has pro­posed a bi­par­tis­an bill that would use re­pat­ri­ation of com­pan­ies’ for­eign earn­ings. Can­did­ates such as Trump and Jeb Bush have talked about the need for in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, but haven’t de­tailed spend­ing plans.

Dan Holler of the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Ac­tion for Amer­ica said that, giv­en the high price tag, he didn’t ex­pect Re­pub­lic­ans to talk about trans­port­a­tion spend­ing in the primary. But faced with a Demo­crat in the gen­er­al elec­tion, Holler said a con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate could use the chance to talk about spend­ing re­form and de­volving money back to the state level.

“Re­pub­lic­ans will nev­er win a bid­ding war with Demo­crats on how much they’ll spend,” said Holler, whose group op­posed the FAST Act. “The op­por­tun­ity is for Re­pub­lic­ans to talk about this in a way that taps in­to the un­fair­ness of the way Wash­ing­ton deals with this.”

Even Shuster, the Trans­port­a­tion Com­mit­tee chair­man who has talked up the long-term im­pact of the FAST Act, said that his bill shouldn’t si­lence can­did­ates on in­fra­struc­ture.

“I sure hope Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats bring it up, be­cause it’s crit­ic­al to Amer­ica,” he said. “If the Demo­crat and the Re­pub­lic­an start talk­ing about it, one’s go­ing to have to up the ante on the oth­er. I hope Re­pub­lic­ans take it back, be­cause his­tor­ic­ally it’s been a Re­pub­lic­an is­sue … but it’s hard to tell with this field.”

(Image via Tupungato/Shutterstock.com)

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