For Infrastructure Week, A Progressive Call To Action

Isaiah J. Poole

A broad combination of labor, business and transportation advocacy organizations have declared this week to be “Infrastructure Week.” And the week is not off to a good start.

The coalition behind the declaration wants to make this a time to show the need for, and the breadth of support for, increased spending on our roads, bridges, public transportation and other public assets. But it got a cold slap in the face before the week began when both houses of the Republican-controlled Congress agreed to a budget resolution that, if followed, would cut federal funding on transportation projects by more than 20 percent. The resolution does not prevent Congress from passing legislation that could nullify those cuts. But the message the House and Senate budget conferees sent last week could not have been clearer: They would rather bask in the ephemeral high of a balanced-budget illusion than to solve critical, real-world problems affecting the veins and arteries of our economy.

That means progressive populists are going to have to get loud and get active – and this is a good week to do so. The fact that our transportation infrastructure is in crisis is for many people a well-known story. (The American Society of Civil Engineers has rated the state of the nation’s infrastructure D+ or worse for years.) But what’s not so well understood is that the crisis has been made worse by anti-government conservatives in Washington. Their ideological rigidity is doing real damage to our economic growth, to our ability to address our jobs crisis, and to the quality of life of millions of people. That must change.

Congress faces a deadline of May 31 to continue authorization of federal surface transportation programs, which include funding for road, bridge and rail improvements. These dollars support millions of design, construction and support jobs. If Congress misses this deadline, the funding spigot is turned off and those jobs are in immediate jeopardy. If Congress instead opts for a short-term extension – a highly likely outcome – we’ll get through the summer construction season but states won’t plan new projects because they won’t know what support to expect from the feds.

Done right, a properly funded surface transportation bill is the most important, and most politically feasible given today’s political climate, contribution the federal government could make to create new jobs and speed up the economic recovery. But, there’s every indication that Republicans in Congress are determined to get this wrong.

An early sign was the derision on the right when the Congressional Progressive Caucus earlier this year proposed a budget that would have authorized $820 billion over 10 years on infrastructure improvements. (The House-Senate budget resolution authorizes $666 billion for surface and air transportation projects over 10 years.) The Caucus budget was soundly defeated, not winning a single Republican vote.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, introduced his own audacious but solidly grounded $1 trillion plan, which he said would create 13 million jobs. He noted at the time that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that it would take $1.6 trillion more than what the country currently spends to get the nation’s infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020. But instead of taking his proposal to the Senate floor during budget deliberations in March, Sanders instead offered the far more modest Obama administration proposal, which would commit $478 billion over six years. Senate Republicans voted it down unanimously. (The final vote was 45-52.

Those votes, though, aren’t the end of the funding story. Aside from a growing but still minority group of far-right lawmakers who would just as soon end the federal spending role in transportation altogether, most members are anxious to do something to at least narrow the growing gap between what Congress wants to appropriate for transportation and the traditional funding source for those projects, the federal gasoline tax.

As cars become more fuel-efficient and as more households live less car-dependent lives in cities, the current gasoline tax is becoming an increasingly ineffective way to raise needed transportation funding. (That’s made worse by the fact that the 18.3-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax hasn’t been raised since 1993, meaning that inflation has eroded the purchasing power of each dollar in the trust fund by more than one-third.)

The central fight is going to be with lawmakers who say they want more funding for transportation but are advocating dishonest ways to get that funding.

A chief offender, sad to say, is the Obama administration, which is supporting a scheme to augment revenue from gasoline taxes with proceeds it says it can collect by allowing corporations that have stashed an estimated $2 trillion in profits overseas to escape taxes to bring those profits back into the United States at a reduced tax rate. A couple different versions of this scheme are circulating through Congress, and they only differ in how much they reward these tax avoiders for their behavior.

We’ve been using general fund revenues to plug the gap between gasoline tax revenues and the surface transportation budget for several years now. But following this route of giving multinational corporate tax avoiders a “holiday” from paying the taxes they rightfully owe, in order to get a few crumbs for building and maintaining the roads that they use to build their businesses, is terrible policy. What we must continue to fight for is tax policy in which corporations pay the taxes they owe on what they earn in the U.S., just as the rest of us pay taxes on the money we earn.

What we also must fight for is a serious national commitment to bringing our transportation networks up to 21st-century standards. Our global economic competitors are moving past us in that regard: China spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on its infrastructure. The average in Europe is 5 percent. The United States spends less than 2 percent of its GDP, five times less than Canada. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report ranked the quality of U.S. roads as only 16th best in the world.

We have a lot to do, and with an unemployment rate in the construction industry at close to 8 percent, plenty of people waiting to do the work. This is the week to hear the voices of those people looking for jobs. It’s also the time to listen to the voices of people who need better access to available jobs, but don’t have it because we are not committing enough support to public transportation. We need to hear the voices of consumers and businesses stymied by choked roads, crowded skies and inadequate rail service. Continuing the fight for the kind of infrastructure plan advanced by the Progressive Caucus and by Sen. Bernie Sanders is essential to a “jobs for all” agenda that is best response to those voices.

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