With the presidential campaign season in full swing, four Democratic candidates shared their views on U.S. infrastructure at a forum hosted by the nonprofit, bipartisan United for Infrastructure and other organizations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Before conducting one-on-one, question-and-answer sessions with the participating candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; and businessman Tom Steyer — one of the moderators, Jerry Seib, The Wall Street Journal's Washington, D.C. bureau chief, laid down some harsh facts about the state of infrastructure in this country.
One of every five miles of roadway that qualifies for federal aid, he said, is in poor condition. Four of every 10 bridges — approximately 235,000 — are in need of structural repair, rehabilitation or replacement, and 47,000 bridges are classified as structurally deficient.
Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, when asked what would have to come first under their administration — either new, climate-friendly infrastructure or the repair of the nation's existing bridges, ports, airports and highways — all indicated that both could be accomplished at once given the right approach.
"I think you start off fixing broken infrastructure in a modern way," Biden said. Highway repairs, he said, for example, could include the installation of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations. The U.S., he said, can increase the efficiency of infrastructure as well as making it green.
Steyer, arguably the candidate with the sharpest focus on climate change, said he would declare a climate emergency on his first day in office and expand what is usually considered infrastructure to include wetlands, parks and forests.
All of the candidates also see high-speed and light commuter rail as part of a climate-change solution. Biden's $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan, he said, includes high-speed rail in the corridors identified as part of the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which includes routes between the Florida cities of Tampa and Orlando, from Florida to Mississippi and between New York and New Jersey. Biden, who said he has logged more than 2 million miles traveling on Amtrak, said rail has the advantages of strengthening local economies and, at the same time, taking pollution-generating cars off the road.
Any potential high-speed initiative put in place by any of the candidates will likely be impacted by the success or failure of current projects like the California High-Speed Rail Authority's $80 billion bullet train, which has been plagued with public relations, financing and schedule issues.
Biden said raising the corporate tax rate to 28% would make approximately $740 billion available for infrastructure over a period of 10 years. President Donald Trump's 2017 tax cuts slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%.
Klobuchar said every point the rate is raised would create $100 billion and that she would perhaps start at a corporate tax rate of 24%.
She also said additional infrastructure money could come from an increase in the international tax rate, an infrastructure financing authority and Buy America bonds.
Biden also floated the possibility of establishing a minimum 15% base corporate tax rate on earnings of large corporations, no matter what tax deductions the company takes.
No candidate, however, would commit to an increase in the gas tax, which funds the National Highway Trust Fund (HTF) that is projected to become insolvent in the coming years. Buttigieg said he would inject the HTF with $165 billion but that it didn't make sense to rely on a gas tax if the economy was moving toward alternatives like rail, electric cars and other modes of transportation that did not use gas. Some tax linked to mileage, he said, might do the job as long as issues regarding use of personal information could be identified and resolved.
The candidates agreed that other infrastructure projects like clean water, water use in the Western United States and resiliency in flood or wildfire-prone areas required federal as well as local investment.
Biden said he would support an increase of the airport passenger facility charge to help pay for airport modernization projects, while Steyer said a tax on airplane fuel would force airlines and passengers to pay for the pollution that air travel creates.
Biden said that it is possible to streamline infrastructure permitting and other regulations without sacrificing the environment, a likely dig at the Trump administration, which has regularly waived environmental regulations for its U.S.-Mexico border wall projects. Biden added that, if elected, he would appoint one person in his administration to deal with the streamlining of regulations, which he said can increase the cost of projects.
Regulations, Klobuchar said, should be looked on a case-by-case basis with an eye toward safety and environmental responsibility.
All of the candidates are committed to creating millions of good-paying jobs as part of their infrastructure initiatives, with an emphasis on paying those workers prevailing, or Davis-Bacon, wages. According to Steyer, a massive overhaul of the nation's infrastructure would create the most union jobs since 1945.