Biden’s infrastructure challenge: Finding common ground

Finding bipartisan agreement on how to pay for infrastructure has stymied administration after administration

President-elect Joe Biden celebrated his victory in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President-elect Joe Biden celebrated his victory in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 7. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted November 23, 2020 at 6:00am

Within days of the 2020 presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden received a blunt reminder of the challenges ahead when a bridge that has come to symbolize the nation’s outdated infrastructure caught fire.

Long before the Nov. 11 collision of two semi-trailers on the Brent Spence Bridge, which links Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, that bridge was offered by both President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump as a visible reminder of the nation’s badly outdated infrastructure. Both vowed to fix it; neither got it done.

Now it’s up to Biden, who, like his predecessors, has listed infrastructure as a top priority in his administration. 

He enters the process facing the same hurdles that Trump and Obama found ultimately insurmountable.

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He has an easy enough vehicle to start with: Congress in October punted on a new highway bill, opting instead to extend the 2015 surface transportation law by a year, to Oct. 1, 2021. 

If Biden wants to go big on infrastructure investment, he has a key ally in House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., who, like Biden, sees infrastructure as inherently linked to climate change.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that though Senate control won’t be settled until after the two Georgia runoff elections in January, Biden appears likely to face a Republican-majority Senate loath to give him a policy win — even on an issue on which they’d both like to see progress.

How to pay

And then there’s the problem that has stymied administration after administration: How to pay for a massive investment.

Congress has not raised the highway- and transit-funding gas tax, fixed at 18.3 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.3 cents per gallon for diesel and kerosene, since 1993. It’s long been a political barrier, even as groups as diverse as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the American Public Transportation Association and the American Trucking Associations have called for an increase, as has DeFazio. In the meantime, the federal government has transferred at least $140 billion from its general funds to offset the resulting shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund that pays for those highway and transit projects, according to a May 2020 report by the Tax Policy Center.

But Republicans including DeFazio’s counterpart on the committee, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., are resistant to such an increase, and argue that the gas tax is heading toward extinction as automobiles become more fuel-efficient. They prefer a fee based on vehicle miles traveled, but even proponents of such a measure say that technology is not yet ready for widespread deployment. 

Biden remained quiet on the infrastructure-funding issue during the campaign. Instead, say those who have studied his proposals, it’s more likely he’ll use deficit spending initially — justifying it as a necessary stimulus during a pandemic-induced slowdown. But he may ultimately pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans. 

“You do not need to campaign for president based on how you pay for things,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, who also said he expects tax changes to be part of Biden’s solution. But, he acknowledged, “it’s going to be extremely challenging to see a Republican-led Senate agree to some of those tax reforms.”

“I think the real question is, where do you find the money,” he said.

Former Secretary of Transportation James H. Burnley IV, who served during the Reagan administration, said that question, combined with who controls the Senate, may determine whether Biden is fully able to realize his infrastructure plans.

Climate change

Folded into nearly every aspect of those plans are references to climate change. Biden, like Trump before him, called for widespread investments in roads, bridges, water systems, broadband and the electric grid. But unlike Trump, Biden folds the promise of union jobs and environmental progress into that platform, promising that any infrastructure will be built to cut greenhouse gas emissions, withstand the impact of climate change, create union jobs and increase access to clean air and clean water.

Biden’s plan also calls for heavy investment into transit, vowing to give every American city with 100,000 or more residents high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.

Finally, he vows to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. 

Leading the cause in the House will be DeFazio, who advised the president-elect’s campaign on infrastructure and led House passage of a $494 billion highway bill in July that closely mirrors Biden’s plan philosophically. 

That bill received just three Republican votes and went nowhere in the Senate, where the GOP has been inclined to support investment in infrastructure designed to withstand extreme weather events, but opposed to electric vehicle charging stations or other investments aimed at reducing emissions.

Tomer said “chances are extremely high” for an infrastructure package, but one point of tension will be over the degree to which climate is part of that package. A $287 billion bill agreed to by the Republican-led Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in July 2019 included a climate title — an important first-time acknowledgment of the issue. But it was far more modest in scope than the House bill. Biden could conceivably use the October 2021 highway bill reauthorization to begin pushing his plans. 

Addressing the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials earlier this month, John Porcari, an adviser to the Biden-Harris campaign and former deputy secretary of Transportation under Obama, said every infrastructure dollar spent by a Biden administration“will need to do double or triple duty,” promoting economic justice, creating jobs and fighting climate change. 

“Relatively modest investments can pay off big for the economy,” he said.

The priority Republicans and Democrats share — resilient infrastructure — will be “a critical part” of any infrastructure program, he said.

Despite the challenge of paying for it and the possibility of a divided Congress, Porcari was bullish about Biden’s odds of passing an infrastructure bill. He cited Biden’s experience helping to implement infrastructure provisions of a 2009 law known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (PL 111-5) as demonstrating the importance of combining high-level projects, such as building a bridge, with low-level projects, such as paving.

“We really need to think about transportation investments, not as a means in themselves, but a means to an end,” he said. He said infrastructure may be a key component of a Biden plan to rejuvenate an economy crippled by the pandemic.

“There are real prospects for a bipartisan, broad infrastructure program,” he said. “It’s no secret to anybody that President-elect Biden has long been an advocate of infrastructure. He feels it in his bones.”