Moving America Forward on Infrastructure in 2020 

This week the very first infrastructure forum for 2020 Presidential candidates was hosted by NLC’s friend and partner, United for Infrastructurein Las Vegas, Nevada. Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Amy Klobuchar, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer all stepped onto the stage to share their perspective and plans on how to tackle our worst infrastructure challenges while they also balance investing in new future infrastructure that’s perhaps electric and more connected than ever before. No candidate also made it off the stage without the Wall Street Journal asking the toughest question – how are they going to pay for their plan? Here’s a recap of what NLC and other infrastructure partners heard at the Moving America Forward Forum on how the candidates would lead together with cities and towns if they were elected our next President.  

Vice President Joe Biden  

Vice President Joe Biden, who is often referred to as “Amtrak Joe” with over 2 million rail miles travelled, is no stranger to the infrastructure conversation and was tapped to help push out the $90 billion in infrastructure from the Recovery Act of 2009When it comes to infrastructure today, Biden was emphatic: “People are ready to do rational things. He believes infrastructure can still be a bipartisan win, and he’s proposing a $1.3 trillion broad infrastructure plan with a funding strategy of raising the corporate tax rate from 21% to 28% which raises roughly $740 billion over 10 years and ensuring that all corporations pay a minimum of 15% earnings regardless of their exemptions. 

Biden believes there’s a lot we can do to create good jobs that pay well and make the infrastructure more green and efficient. He’s also pro-streamlining with the right knowledgeable folks, especially on the environment. When asked, “Do you fix the crumbling part or just build all the shiny new parts?” the answer remains both given examples of upgrades to port cranes while doing the basic maintenance of dredging and deepening at the port.  

Tom Steyer 

Steyer believes there are different ways to do infrastructure beyond government-supported spending in the federal budget. He stated that on his first day of office, he is committing to declare a climate emergency and use that authority to shift the processes and procedures that companies use to impact that. However, that doesn’t mean shifting dollars away from roads and bridges to go to electric infrastructure saying, “We have an infrastructure backlog that is really cutting into our economic advantage and it’s putting rural America at a huge disadvantage, but we also have a gigantic housing problem with 7 million too few affordable housing units in the country.”  

His rebuilding plan is focused on how we build infrastructure back in a clean way. He believes we have to really build up more public transit and rail options that can move more families, and the housing along the lines with it. He also believes we need to push down the price of electric cars, but that most funding may end up being a “Cash for Clunkers” buyback for families to more quickly transition to a cleaner car fleet. When asked about using a gas tax increase to fund transportation again, he pushes back against using a regressive consumer tax versus treating investment income on the same tax schedule as earned income. “Everybody knows we have to do it, and we can easily afford to do it. We just have to get over the idea that rich people don’t pay taxes anymore,” Steyer says. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar 

Senator Klobuchar was the first 2020 candidate to announce an infrastructure plan and started her campaign near where the I-35W bridge that collapsedacknowledging the human impact of infrastructure failure and that bridges shouldnt just fall down in the middle of America. Klobuchar sees infrastructure as a critical task, Our public works and our public good is a part of who we are as a nation and looking out for each other… The major job is keeping our citizens safe and it is also shared prosperity, and infrastructure is a great way to get there.” 

As a long-term Senator, she sees the potential of working to improve and legislate through these issues – from broadband to roads and bridges – using infrastructure financing supported by Sen. Mark Warner (VA) and Sen. Roy Blunt (MO) as well as bringing back Buy America Bonds as supported by Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) and Sen. John Hoeven (ND). Like most rural cities, she remains amazed that broadband access is elusive, and as a former telecommunication lawyer, her plans focus on bringing that connectivity to rural areas by 2022. She’s a big believer in rail – both because you can travel without arguing with your spouse and creates good access and well-paid jobs. To pay for it, the Senator would bump up taxes rates slightly, reset international taxes back to prior rates to pull together $550 billion and add national financing and bonding efforts.  

Mayor Pete Buttigieg 

As a former local official, Mayor Pete Buttigieg believes infrastructure is bipartisan territory for agreement saying, “One of the things the American people actually agree on is the need for a major investment in the future of our infrastructure.” He panned previous infrastructure proposals where “it turned out the plan was for state and local officials to come up with most of the money – which is how it already works!” His broad infrastructure plan is focused on bringing what we’ve already invested in back into good condition while also investing in a “smart mix” of infrastructure like rail that helps achieve other goals like reduced emissions. He also mentioned equity is one of his goals for an infrastructure plan saying, We know that the racial and economic inequality that we experience in this country plays out with the inferior infrastructure that so many Americans are expected to put up with.

To fund infrastructure, the Mayor’s plan puts $165 into the Highway Trust Fund which would come from tax changes rather than gas tax increases because “the reality is we’re going to have to graduate from gas taxes because we have to graduate from gas.” Whether electric charging or other infrastructure, Buttigieg acknowledged that from his experience as a mayor, he knows that good infrastructure ideas can come from the local level and don’t necessarily have to come from Washington, but more of the support and financing should come from the federal government. 

2020 Looking Forward 

Infrastructure is always a major talking point in the lead-up to big elections, but in 2020it’s hard to ignore how far behind we’re falling – from transportation to broadband, to water and the skilled workforce to get the job done. That’s why Building Sustainable Infrastructure is one of four key pillars of the NLC Leading Together 2020 Cities Agenda which Mayor Buttigieg and now Senator Elizabeth Warren have signed onto. 

While we’re glad for all of these candidates stepping up on infrastructure, don’t forget that the President and Congress still have a lot of potential plays they could make on infrastructure before the election even happens in November. 

Presidential Infrastructure Priorities 

As a candidate and once elected, President Trump has supported a bold infrastructure initiative, and most recently with his 2021 proposed budget to Congress, it included a renewed commitment to a $1 trillion dollar direct federal investment showing: 

  • $810 billion in Surface Transportation including: 
    • $602 billion for highways 
    • $155 billion for transit 
    • $20 billion for traffic and motor carrier safety 
    • $17 billion for rail, $16 billion for transportation TIFIA loans and Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants (note: formerly called TIGER) and  
    • nearly $1 billion for pipeline and hazardous materials safety.  
  • $190 billion in investments across a range of infrastructure sectors including: 
    • $60 billion for a new Building Infrastructure Great grants program to accelerate delivery of “mega-projects” 
    • $50 billion for a new Moving America’s Freight Safely and Efficiently program with formula and discretionary grants to open up freight bottleneck areas and improve safety 
    • $35 billion for a new Bridge Rebuilding program to make targeted investments in critical bridge infrastructure to restore them to good condition with $12 billion for “offsystem” bridges allocated via formula and $23 billion will be provided for larger bridges via a competitive process 
    • $25 billion for a new Revitalizing Rural America program to help rural communities deliver broadband, transportation, water, and other infrastructure projects. Funding will be distributed via formula to States, territories, and tribes, and bonus grants will be provided based on the boldness of locally-developed investment and performance plans.
    • $20 billion for a Transit State of Good Repair Sprint program to reduce the transit repair backlog of existing assets (no new capacity projects) 

Also, in the 2020 State of the Union, the President also positively affirmed that Congress should move to rebuild America’s infrastructure, saying to both House and Senate leaders, “I ask you to pass Senator John Barrasso’s highway bill to invest in new roads, bridges, and tunnels all across our land.”  

For NLC, the President’s support is encouraging because the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act is due from Congress before September 30th of this year in order to keep funding flowing to cities and states to address highway and transportation priorities. The President’s backing of Sen. Barrasso’s America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (S.2302) is the next step to encourage Congressional leaders to find the funding that will be needed to bring a new transportation bill together in both the Senate and the House.  

The President also gave mention to other key infrastructure priorities: “To protect the environment, days ago I announced that the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world…. I’m also committed to ensuring that every citizen can have access to high-speed Internet, including and especially in rural America.” We look forward to seeing what the next steps will be to accomplish these infrastructure priorities in 2020. 

House Leadership’s Infrastructure Framework  

This January, the House Leadership assembled to release a $760 billion cross-Committee #MovingForward Framework to make transformative infrastructure investments across the country. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA)Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR), Energy and Commerce Committee Rep. Frank Pallone (NJ), and Ways and Means Committee Rep. Richard Neal (MA) released the Framework to invest in the whole spectrum of infrastructure – highways, transit, aviation, safety, rail, ports, inland waterways, water, brownfields, energy, broadband, and even 9-1-1. Over five years, these would be “smarter, safer, and made to last.”  

Most significantly, the proposal makes significant reference of local government indicating a potential for the framework to be far more inclusive of cities as true and equal partners in infrastructure rebuilding than ever before. Here are just a few direct quotes from the proposal:  

  • Expands Local Control – Expands decision-making over Federal funds to other levels of government and provides additional authority to metropolitan planning organizations that demonstrate the capacity to administer Federal funds. Amends the sub-allocation process to ensure mid-sized communities receive a portion of program funds. 
  • Empowers Local and Tribal Governments – Authorizes technical assistance to cities, counties, rural areas, and tribes to improve capacity to receive and administer Federal funds and facilitate project delivery… 
  • Investment in Communities – Provides targeted funding for communities, tribes, and rural and other continually disadvantaged areas.  

Throughout the #MovingForward Framework are indications that Congress will take significant action on cities’ transportation priorities including: 

  • Investment in Bridges – Provides funding to repair or replace bridges in poor condition, including in rural areas.  
  • Reforms Bus Programs – Increases bus funding in combination with procurement reforms tailored to both large and small transit agencies and invests in bus facilities to overcome the cuts to Federal funding in recent years. 
  • Focuses on Bus Riders – Refocuses Federal policy on the needs of riders by ensuring Federal funding formulas prioritize frequency of service and provide tools and resources to move buses faster with the use of bus lanes, signal priority, route optimization, and on-time performance measures.  
  • Connects Veterans, Substance Abuse Patients, and the Elderly to Healthcare – Creates a new grant program that builds upon ongoing demonstration projects that have shown success in improving the health care of constituencies by getting patients to medical appointments… Grantees will coordinate with other Federal programs, hospitals, clinics, and state/local health agencies to provide a seamless transportation system.
  • Advances Innovation – Takes mobility on demand beyond demonstration projects and incorporates it into everyday transit operations. 
  • Technology Deployment – Focuses research programs on deploying smart infrastructure and new technologies to address emerging challenges and explore the infrastructure changes needed to accommodate autonomous vehicles, such as safeguarding vulnerable users, construction zones, and emergency vehicles.
  • Invests in Rail Infrastructure – Funds projects that transform our rail network, including addressing the backlog of rail infrastructure and facility investments needed to bring passenger rail into a state of good repair and beyond. 
  • Expands Passenger Rail – Supports establishing new or improved intercity, commuter, or higher-speed passenger rail corridors, while also reducing congestion and improving on-time passenger rail service.
  • Strengthens Transportation Facilities – Creates a new program to protect fragile or at-risk transportation assets before they fail, to invest in evacuation routes, and to increase resiliency to climate change and other natural disasters, including earthquakes.
  • Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) Cap – Increases the PFC cap and indexes it to inflation… [to] fund critical landside development projects that are ineligible for AIP funding, help airports prepare for anticipated passenger growth and demand, and ready airport infrastructure for the future impacts of climate change and natural disasters.
  • Aviation Noise – Accelerates research on overflight noise and the implementation of policies and programs to lessen such noise and alleviate its impact on communities near U.S. airports.
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems – Advances the deployment and increased use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to assist in the construction of transportation infrastructure projects…
  • Integration of Large UAS and Other New Aircraft – Plans for the integration of large UAS and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft—electric-powered aircraft designed to transport passengers and cargo on-demand—into the National Airspace System… particularly in metropolitan regions. 

NLC is dedicated to supporting cities’ priorities of infrastructure and workforce with both Congress and the Administration throughout 2020 and beyond.  

Read NLC’sLeading Together 2020 Cities Agenda

Read NLC’s Transportation Priorities 

Watch the full Forum

Read the Wall Street Journal Moderators’ Take on the Forum

About the Author: Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.