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Bill Straub: Where oh where is McConnell’s infrastructure plan to fix all the bridges and roads?

It would be redundant to note that the term “infrastructure week,” invoked during the administration of erstwhile President Donald J. Trump, became something of a running joke since the former guy’s entire four-year tenure was itself a running joke, a cruel one but a joke nonetheless.

It seemed that every time Trump found himself in a tight spot, constantly, in other words, he dangled the enticing prospect of a mammoth infrastructure package to keep the beasts at bay. The scandals kept coming but the proposal to upgrade the nation’s highways, airports and other transportation needs never did.

So much for promises made, promises kept. The funny thing is a solid infrastructure bill likely would have attracted substantial support from the Democratic side with the promise of jobs and greater efficiency in moving about, handing him a bipartisan victory. Instead, what the nation received was four years of inaction, rendering an already bad situation even worse.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, in a report issued in February 2020, estimated that the U.S. will “underinvest” in its infrastructure by more than $2 trillion between 2016-2025.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

The society determined that about 44 percent of the nation’s major roads are in poor or mediocre shape and 38 percent of its bridges need “repair, replacement or significant rehabilitation.”

And that’s just the beginning. There are non-transportation infrastructure needs as well – dams, water lines, sewers and the like – that have been neglected to the point that the potential for disaster is very real.

“Even though life cycle costs analyses show that it is more cost-effective to engage in preventative maintenance, rehabilitation, and timely replacement, the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure continues to result in deteriorating conditions that impact reliability, public safety and the ability to bounce back from costly disasters,” the report said.

In a report card issued less than two years ago, the civil engineers gave Kentucky’s total infrastructure a grade of C-minus. The condition of the Commonwealth’s road received a D-minus despite recent improvements. Traffic volume in the state increased by 5 percent between 2013 and 2019.

“While this is encouraging, there continues to be inadequate funding for needed construction and safety initiatives,” the report found. “The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet recently identified $6 billion in unfunded construction projects, which would require an additional $490 million per year to address.
The report also maintained that the state’s damns, levees and hazardous waste facilities are also problematic.

It’s been 12 years since the federal government moved on infrastructure. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, offered by former President Barack Obama during the depths of an economic collapse, was to large degree aimed at projects, like infrastructure, to get people back to work.

Another effort, this one in April 2019, which would have invested $2 trillion, fell apart when, in a fit of pique, Trump demanded that the Democrat-controlled House stop investigating his various and ongoing peccadillos. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, refused, and there you have it.

So the issue has landed in the lap of President Biden who, it appears, is ready to go big.

The White House, still focusing on the continuing COVID-19 crisis, has yet to release a plan. But according to Reuters, “Biden and his fellow Democrats hope to expand the definition of infrastructure beyond existing transportation architecture to include items aimed at tackling climate change and its effects, echoing the $2 trillion, 10-year ‘Build Back Better’ proposal floated during his campaign.

“That includes investments in electric vehicle charging stations, zero-emission buses and zero-carbon electricity generation by 2035, and directing dollars to minority neighborhoods and contractors, part of a pledge to increase racial equity.”

Obviously, after investing trillions of dollars in an effort to firm up the economic soil under the public’s feet in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Biden and supporters of infrastructure investment are going to have to find the money somewhere. One logical place to start is an increase is the federal gasoline tax, which presently rests at 18.4 cents per gallon.

During his confirmation hearing, asked directly about a potential gas tax increase, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg responded, “I think all options need to be on the table.”

Buttigieg noted that the tax hasn’t been increased since 1993 and it has never been pegged to inflation.

“…and that is one of the reasons why the current state of the Highway Trust Fund is that there’s more going out than coming in,” he said.

That idea has attracted the attention of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is on record favoring a 25-cent gas tax. Over 10 years, the organization estimates the hike would increase revenues by $375 billion.

That’s a start but it likely will require more. For one thing, with more and more electric cars hitting the road, the gas tax will suffer. Reducing emissions, of course, is a good thing but it likely will reduce the existing revenue stream.

Regardless, Democrats, who control the House, the Senate by the slimmest of margins and the White House will have to push through any infrastructure legislation without Republican support, at least according to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, who has seldom encountered necessary legislation he wasn’t willing to block for his own dark purposes.

“…I don’t think there’s going to be any enthusiasm on our side for a tax increase,” McConnell said.

This represents a rather typical, and yawn-inducing, response from Mitch who really needs some new material. If Biden seeks to move ahead on infrastructure by increasing levies, McConnell can howl like a grey wolf that Democrats are taxing people to death. If the president simply proceeds and seeks to implement a plan without tax increases to offset the costs, our boy can wail like a banshee that the administration is adding to the already sky-high national debt, which he, of course, helped create but let’s not look behind that curtain.

But wait, it gets even better.

Without any GOP support, Democrats likely will be forced to turn to reconciliation to get an infrastructure package through. It’s the same legislative process used to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill last month without a single Republican vote. Put simply, it’s a parliamentary maneuver that helps expedite the passage of certain budgetary proposals that can’t by filibustered.

The Senate presently is split, 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, on hand to break any ties. A filibuster requires any measure to receive 60 votes, which makes reconciliation tempting and, probably in this case, necessary.

By forcing reconciliation, McConnell will be able to crow that Biden has gone back on his commitment to govern in a unifying and bipartisan manner. Rather, he is acting in a heavy-handed manner to unfairly quash the minority.

The thing to remember here is that nowhere is McConnell offering an infrastructure alternative. Nor is he sharing his wisdom on how it should be paid for. He’d much rather sit in the cheap seats and heckle anyone who is on stage.

America’s infrastructure is crumbling. Mitch McConnell is playing games.

So what’s new? And rest assured, Mitch and his gang will line up to take credit for any good that results from an infrastructure bill even though they all voted against it.

So next time your Louisville-made Ford F-550 is swallowed up by a pothole the size of Montana, your Georgetown-made Toyota Camry falls off a crumbling bridge or the dam busts upstream, make sure to check McConnell’s infrastructure plan.

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