As a Bridge Crumbles, Congress Fumbles

Isaiah J. Poole


Scott Klinger of the Center for Effective Government explains how fair corporate taxes would help close the nation’s infrastructure spending deficit.

It’s too bad that Congress was out of session this past Friday. Members would have gotten a first-hand look at the consequences of their inaction on infrastructure spending.

Authorities began barring tour buses and other heavy vehicles on Memorial Bridge, a key connection across the Potomac River to the Lincoln Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other historic spots, after discovering that the bridge had become so corroded that will require extensive repairs. The bridge is on U.S. Park Service property, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told The Washington Post that the $250 million cost of the required repairs is more than the Park Service’s entire budget for roads and bridges.

About the same time, there was a water main break a short distance from the Capitol, near the Union Station rail terminal. A nearby office building was out of water and traffic in the area was snarled.

Those snapshots of America’s infrastructure crisis came after Congress hit the equivalent of the snooze button on a surface transportation bill that would provide federal funding for the nation’s bridges, roads and public transportation. Congress is gridlocked by conservative ideologues who are rejecting calls for increased spending even as the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates we should be spending almost twice what we’re currently spending to maintain our roads, bridges and public transportation.

That meant that Congress put off until the end of July work on a long-term funding bill that would enable states and localities to plan and execute repairs on the Memorial Bridge and the more than 61,000 other structurally deficient bridges across the U.S. But even then, a resolution isn’t likely. The Obama administration wants to pay for increased spending through taxes on the more than $2 trillion in corporate profits that have been kept overseas to avoid taxes. But even the White House deal, which would tax profits that corporations bring back into the country at a fraction of the 35 percent top rate they currently would owe, is not a sweet enough deal for the anti-tax Republicans. They say they are for closing corporate tax loopholes but in reality don’t believe corporations should pay one additional dime toward fixing the infrastructure that enables their businesses to function.

Then there’s Amtrak, the subject of a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing today. The committee plans to probe last month’s deadly trail derailment outside Philadelphia and ask why an automatic train control system that could have prevented the derailment was not in place at the time. What the Republicans on the committee will certainly not probe is their own history of starving Amtrak of funding almost from the beginning of its creation, which crippled the already complex job of deploying the technology.

Later this week, the House is scheduled to take up the spending bill that includes the $250 million cut in Amtrak funding that the House Appropriations Committee made in its 2016 budget the day after the train crash. That bill reflects the current Republican mindset on spending on America’s basic needs: starvation diets for the nation’s housing and transportation needs, while refusing to act on common-sense tax increases – such as raising a gasoline tax that has not been increased since the mid-1990s, not even to keep pace with the cost of living – and tax reforms that would require the wealthy and corporations to pay more.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that the nation’s total infrastructure deficit is $3.6 trillion; that’s the gap between that we should be spending to maintain our transportation assets, water systems and waterways, airports, parks and energy grid, and what we’re actually spending. Put another way, we’re spending less than 2 percent of our gross domestic product on infrastructure. The average spending in Europe is 5 percent; in China, it’s 9 percent.

The contrast in values is stark. China, which as late as 2004 did not have any high-speed rail, is expected to have 19,000 miles of high-speed rail connecting communities with 700 million people by 2020. This week, the House Republican transportation bill will include a prohibition against using federal funds for high-speed rail. This reflects an outright animosity toward using public dollars for a public good.

This is happening for the most part at the periphery of the public discourse, only brought to the forefront when an Amtrak train derails or when a major bridge collapses, as one did in Minneapolis in 2007. That is what makes this crisis even worse for citizens who need to get to and from work or school every day, who need reliable water and sewer systems, who want a greener, smarter electrical grid and who want to unplug and unwind in a clean, safe public park. It makes it worse for all of us who want a growing economy with good jobs.

That’s why we need to keep challenging the conservative Republican agenda against investing what we should in infrastructure. We need to challenge an ideology that seeks to engage in fanciful and flawed schemes to turn our public infrastructure into private profit centers, or to offer deep tax cuts to corporate tax evaders in the hopes that this will result in a few crumbs for public spending. We need to challenge the conservative premise that we can’t afford to pay for good public goods, but we can afford ever-escalating spending on worthless weaponry and on tax breaks for corporate special interests.

Among the presidential candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has stepped forward with a $1 trillion plan that would at least be a solid down payment on our infrastructure needs over the next five years. Here’s the critical question for every other presidential candidate: Do you have a plan to rebuild America, or are you going to keep courting privatization and tax-cutting fantasies?

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