There is little doubt that South Carolina could use some infrastructure upgrades. The most obvious example of need would be the deepening of the Charleston harbor, but there are highways and bridges and airports that could use a little boost as well.
So mention President-elect Donald Trump’s $1 trillion dream of rebuilding the American transportation landscape, and there’s a willingness to listen among the state’s congressional contingent.
Some Democrats, traditionally more willing supporters of infrastructure projects, are suspicious. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., said the plan “is a scam” to benefit the rich.
If you look at the underlying data, our infrastructure fares pretty well. Structurally deficient bridges are pretty rare. Our highway road quality is pretty good.
Michael Sargent, who analyzes trends in federal spending at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation
While Trump’s election means Republicans control the White House, Senate and House, it’s clear his plan won’t be an easy sell within his party. And the predominantly Republican, and conservative, South Carolina contingent is important to any chances Trump will have as president of moving the still lightly detailed plan into legislation.
The plan was, however, central to his campaign and wildly popular among his supporters at rallies. “We are going to rebuild our infrastructure,” he said repeatedly both during the campaign and since being elected. “They will be second to none.”
But $1 trillion is a lot of money. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has said that even fiscally conservative members of Congress, in particular the Freedom Caucus, understand the need for high quality roads and bridges. U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said he is willing to consider to any proposal that makes the United States more able to compete economically.
Speaking to reporters last month, Graham said, “We can agree on the need to rebuild our roads and bridges. We can agree on the need to deepen Charleston harbor.”
The question is how to pay for it.
The total discretionary U.S. budget – over which Congress has some control – is a bit more than $1 trillion a year.
Michael Sargent, who analyzes trends in federal spending at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said spending so much money, intended to be spread out over 10 years, means it’s unlikely the government will be able to easily find the needed funds.
The worst possible option would be a general tax increase, he said, though he noted that paying for it from existing federal money is also problematic. It’s very unlikely to be deficit neutral.
Sargent said there are two basic thoughts on how an infrastructure program could work: First, local governments should be given the responsibility of deciding what needs to be done. Second, projects should be paid for with user fees.
“An increase in the gas tax is the traditional way to fund road and bridge work,” Sargent said. “But with improved gas mileage and more and more electric vehicles, the gas tax is an imperfect system.”
He said the Oregon experiment of using mileage-tracking devices on vehicles to tax drivers per mile, rather than per gallon, is a promising alternative. Toll roads and bridges are another alternative.
Airport user fees should support airports, he said. Of the projects being considered, the most justified would be the deepening of ports.
But overall, he said, the Trump plan makes a fundamental mistake.
“If you look at the underlying data, our infrastructure fares pretty well,” Sargent said. “Structurally deficient bridges are pretty rare. Our highway road quality is pretty good. What we need is better maintenance. We don’t need big, shiny new projects that politicians can use for ribbon-cutting photos. We need targeted investment. We need that investment to be directed at a local level.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., keeps a computer monitor at the entrance to his Capitol Hill office that shows the constantly growing U.S. debt. The monitor in the past week showed the debt moving toward $20 trillion. He said he views all federal spending through that lens.
Given that, Sanford said the harbor falls into a different category of need. The harbor “is one of a handful in the East Coast that can be made to accept the new, larger Panama Canal cargo ships. It’s a national treasure. It should be a national priority.”
Beyond the port in his home district, he said, “Infrastructure should wait.”
Sanford says it isn’t needed right now. “The national economy is actually good right now,” he said. “Unemployment is quite low.” Overall U.S. unemployment is about 4.9 percent.
“It’s not paid for, and if it’s not paid for, your money goes into growing U.S. infrastructure, but at the same time sinks the national economy by creating more debt,” he said.