Talk of infrastructure spending on the U.S. presidential campaign trail tends to consist of platitudes of support akin to vows to promote education and fight crime.
Not this time.
Although the issue isn’t getting the same play as the sluggish economy or ballooning federal deficit, President Obama is trumpeting his transportation spending and calling for more investment. In contrast, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is slamming Obama for transportation spending through the stimulus package. Romney’s stance on infrastructure spending remains murky, but the snipes and posturing from both sides reveal a growing divide about how to fix the nation’s ailing freight infrastructure.
Despite their differences, the parties are united in their efforts to find a way other than the fuel tax to fund investment. Raising the fuel tax is political suicide for both parties, and the Republican Party Platform opposes charging drivers by how many miles they drive. Instead of debating how to fund spending, the campaigns predictably have made infrastructure investment a talking point in the debate over the government’s role in boosting the economy.
Nowhere was this more evident than at the Republican Convention in Tampa, Fla., where hundreds of attendees chanted, “We Built This!” The rallying cry for the free market was a rebuke to Obama’s garbled statement that the government, not businesses, built the foundation for enterprise, which includes highways and roads.
Behind this rhetoric is the looming question of whether Romney would cut freight infrastructure spending. Reduced maintenance and expansion of the nation’s freight system would increase transportation costs and make exporters less competitive globally.
Although Obama has vowed to maintain spending levels, Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, has alarmed transportation proponents. Ryan’s proposed budget would cut surface transportation spending by roughly a quarter, or about $38 billion annually. Under Ryan’s plan, highway construction would be fueled solely by Highway Trust Fund, not injections from the general fund or so-called pay-fors, two methods used to offset shrinking fuel tax collections.
Romney has not said whether he would adopt his deputy’s model, but even such talk is “very dangerous,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. “The idea that we would stop spending on such important things that are essential for the U.S. to be competitive is like shooting yourself in the foot while running a footrace,” she said.
A Republican-led reduction in transportation spending doesn’t necessarily mean the freight system would be hurt significantly or affected at all. Republicans are more focused on cutting spending on high-speed rail and nontraditional transportation projects, such as sidewalks, as evidenced by the party’s convention platform.
Although Romney rejected the platform, many of the deficit-cutting tenants parallel those pushed by Ryan and other House Republicans. Funding the HTF “remains a challenge, given the debt and deficits and the need to reduce spending,” the funding notes, while only citing the need for “hard choices” in dealing with shortfalls.
Republicans are far clearer in what they don’t want. They rejected a vehicle miles tax, a device many transportation proponents see as the best way to replace or augment the fuel tax, because of concerns over privacy. Republicans also want more privatization, a stance President George W. Bush heralded to mixed results because of the lack of attractiveness of many projects to the private sector.
Republicans want to keep the ban on earmarks, a method of funding lawmakers’ pet construction projects that often lessen partisan rancor. Romney, who worked to make transportation spending more efficient while governor of Massachusetts, sought hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for infrastructure during his tenure. Ryan also sought money through the stimulus package despite his opposition to the bill, according to reports.
Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the nonprofit Eno Transportation Foundation, was encouraged that the Republican platform states strongly the need for more port funding, particularly in light of the expansion of the Panama Canal. The attention to ports, a rarity to such a platform, also highlights that “America’s exporters sometimes use Canadian ports in order to reach the world in a timely manner.”
The mention comes as Northwest ports complain the Harbor Maintenance Tax, a charge on imported cargo, has pushed U.S.-bound freight through Canadian gateways. Talk of the HMT and port spending are unlikely to feature in the presidential campaign, although the issues could have a role in congressional races.
Instead, Obama’s $48.5 billion in spending on transportation projects through the $787 billion stimulus package is and likely will continue to be a talking point for both sides. Romney spokesman Brendan Buck told Politico the lack of shovel-ready projects was a result of “overregulation and special interests.” The rare statement on infrastructure from the Romney camp was a reaction to an Obama radio ad that warned Ryan’s transportation-cutting budget would cause congestion in northern Virginia.
Aside from stimulus spending, Obama has pushed more than $950 million to freight projects through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grant program. As part of his effort to cut bureaucracy to promote the economy, Obama on Aug. 17 made $473 million in funding originally allocated to earmarks available to states. He also fast-tracked the review on seven big infrastructure projects on the East Coast through the same initiative.
“I think the Obama administration and the DOT are right to defend their record,” Blakey said. “Congress has not done a good job of funding infrastructure.”
Under Obama, the Department of Transportation used its limited resources to leverage private investment and begin to shape a national freight policy. But the administration also has had its share of failures. Obama himself has admitted that many stimulus shovel-ready projects weren’t in fact ready for groundbreaking.
Early in his term, Obama balked at raising the fuel tax to pay for a proposed six-year, $450 billion surface transportation bill. Congress last year rejected his attempt to unleash $50 billion more on infrastructure spending and use $10 billion to create a national infrastructure bank. The Democratic convention platform reiterates the need for a similar institution.
“A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt called together leaders from business and government to develop a plan for the next century’s infrastructure,” the platform reads. “It falls to us to do the same.”
Such bold rhetoric soon will hit a hard wall of reality: the need for a new surface transportation bill. Shrinking HTF coffers and fewer available budget offsets could make observers nostalgic for the last drawn-out, down-to-the-last-minute bill. One optimistic scenario is that the fuel tax will be raised as part of a federal deficit-cutting bargain between the parties. That would take a true bipartisan effort, a sentiment expressed on the campaign trail that is as plentiful and empty as baby kisses from a candidate.
Contact Mark Szakonyi at firstname.lastname@example.org.