Transportation Policy

Amy Klobuchar's $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Contains Nothing That Hasn't Failed Before

From high-speed rail to rural broadband, Klobuchar's supposedly bold policy framework reads like a retread of policies pushed by Democrats and Trump.

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Abaca Press/Douliery Olivier/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom

When the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people, Congress wasted little time in appropriating $250 million to fund a replacement. Just 13 months after the old bridge plunged into the Mississippi River, the first vehicles rolled across the new structure.

In announcing her presidential campaign's first major policy proposal, which calls for spending $1 trillion in combined federal and state funds on infrastructure projects, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) touts her experience in the aftermath of the I-35W bridge disaster. As a freshman senator in 2007, she had sponsored the bill that then-President George W. Bush signed, directing federal funds to the clean up and replacement of the bridge. Now, as a presidential candidate, Klobuchar says that "proven track record of delivering results" is exactly what's needed to "get things done and pass progressive policies that keep our country moving."

The problem with Klobuchar's infrastructure proposal—outlined in broad strokes in a Medium post last week—is that, aside from Klobuchar's involvement, there's not really much common ground between the emergency funding for the I-35W rebuilding project and what she's proposing now.

That bridge handled 140,000 vehicles daily; it was a crucial link in the highway system and a key conduit for people and commerce in the Twin Cities. Whether it should be rebuilt was never in doubt. But Klobuchar's infrastructure proposal would have Congress repeal part of last year's corporate income tax cut in order to fund projects that seem far less essential. Some, like high-sped rail and government-funded broadband internet, have a long track record of being outright boondoggles while others barely seem like infrastructure projects at all.

"This is retread of the Senate Dems grab-bag plan from last year," says Bob Poole, director of transportation policy for the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website. "Basically, define everything possible as infrastructure and throw hundreds of billions of dollars at it."

Specifically, Klobuchar wants to hike federal infrastructure spending by $650 billion—though she is pitching her plan as a $1 trillion proposal, equal to what President Donald Trump has proposed spending on infrastructure, by assuming state and local governments will pony up the rest.

For now, there are no details regarding how much to spend on any particular type of project—something that Congress would likely decide anyway—but Klobuchar says she would prioritize "smart investments to repair and replace our roads and highways" and structurally deficient bridges. (Her release inflates the number of officially designated structurally deficient bridges from 47,000 to 50,000.)

Beyond that, she wants to "expand reliable public transit options" and "bring high-speed rail to more communities."

But public transit ridership is in decline almost everywhere, notes Randal O'Toole, a transportation policy expert with the Cato Institute. "Now is not the time to be spending more tax dollars on a dying industry that is already the most heavily subsidized form of transportation, per passenger mile, that we have," he tells Reason.

As for high-speed rail, well, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently pulled the plug on the nation's most high-profile high-speed rail project—but only after projections showed the project would run tens of billions of dollars over-budget. The current plan is to finish building a shorter high-speed rail line between Bakersfield and Merced at a cost of about $10 billion instead of a longer, more expensive line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles. Even in places where high-speed rail make geographic sense (that is, the Northeast), tickets on Amtrak's Acela service are far more expensive than airfares for trains that go less than half as fast (and usually less than that) as planes.

Similarly, Klobuchar sees a role for the federal government in getting Americans online. She promises to connect all houses to the internet by 2022, promising to bring "high-speed internet infrastructure to areas most in need." But the market is doing a fine job of bringing people online, while government-run broadband projects (a staple of the Obama-era stimulus) have been unable to keep up. In Louisiana, a $160-million fiber-to-the-home rural broadband initiative ran up $160 million in debt while falling short of connectivity goals by 30 percent. In Minnesota, a federally funded rural broadband project lost $40 million and was eventually sold to a private provider.

Faster wireless data speeds and improved coverage maps have, or soon will, allow anyone to be online without a physical internet connection running to their home. Government-funded rural broadband service is a policy idea that's rooted in the 2000s, not the 2020s.

Other parts of Klobuchar's plan seem even more misplaced as elements of a federal infrastructure proposal. She calls for upgrading "crumbling and unsafe schools" and cites a 2017 survey that found half of America's school buildings need improvements. School funding has always been the purview of local and state governments, and turning that into a federal responsibility would be huge shift in policy—and one that would be unlikely to address the personnel and pension costs at the root of many school budget problems.

There is not enough detail in Klobuchar's proposal to determine whether the math adds up, but it's probably right to be skeptical of the idea that a hike in the corporate income tax will be enough to pay for $650 billion price tag. Other funding mechanisms include "closing loopholes that encourage U.S. companies to move jobs and operations overseas, establishing a financial risk fee on our largest banks, and increasing efforts for tax enforcement."

Even if that works out, funding infrastructure with tax dollars instead of user fees is a risky proposition. "Experience shows that infrastructure funded out of user fees is well maintained but infrastructure funded out of tax dollars is crumbling," says O'Toole.

In many ways, Klobuchar's first major policy outline reflects the image she is trying to project in the Democratic primary: that of a moderate who is willing to expand government's role in small ways without promising a fundamental transformation of the country. It's telling that her infrastructure plan is getting a somewhat chilled reception from progressives for failing to grapple with carbon emissions (beyond a token mention of "greener communities and workplaces") and other environmental consequences of moving people from place to place. That's where the Democratic Party is heading now, with proposals like the Green New Deal calling for an end to commercial air travel in the future, but Klobuchar's would hardly seem out of place within the Obama administration.

It also gives her an opportunity to draw a contrast with Trump, who promised to deliver a $1 trillion infrastructure bill during his first year in office and failed to deliver it. Trump is now asking Congress for a smaller $200 billion infrastructure bill, but Klobuchar says that plan "is a mirage" that's too scarce on details.

The same criticism could be leveled at her own vague proposal, which looks like it was pasted together after Klobuchar combed through the clippings on the Democratic policy office's cutting room floor. The campaign is still in its early stages and she will have time to refine her pitch to voters, but for now it looks like "Infrastructure Week" remains as elusive as ever.

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47 responses to “Amy Klobuchar's $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Contains Nothing That Hasn't Failed Before

  1. Amy Klobuchar’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

    Simpsons did it!

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  2. How about we just fix the roads and harden the electrical grid against real risks like a solar flare or EMP attack? That sounds a lot better than choo choos run on graft and unicorn farts.

    1. All aboard!

  3. Amy Klobuchar’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan Contains Nothing That Hasn’t Failed Before

    Let me be that guy. Previous failure is not an automatic indicator of future failure.

    1. As a technical matter, this is true. It is often, however, a strong indicator.

      1. Add government and its almost a certainty.

      2. No argument there. I just think that if “it didn’t work last time” is your only argument for why something won’t work, you should probably keep looking for other reasons.

        That being said, I suspect that this woman has nothing but an assload of bad ideas.

    2. Just because you are that guy does not mean that it would be fair to conclude that the Sparkman has any confidence that Globuchar’s trillion dollar government infrastructure / transportation project will be a paragon of success.

  4. When every week is infrastructure week, no week is infrastructure week.

    And that’s fine by me

  5. Are the projects shovel-ready?

    1. Filling the coffers of state and local public employee pension funds is a “shovel ready” job silly.

    2. It depends. What are we shoveling?

      1. Well, D-Pizzle, I have an answer, but you won’t like it…

  6. Beyond that, she wants to “expand reliable public transit options” and “bring high-speed rail to more communities.”

    Then ask the states. I can’t see how or why the feds need to be involved in this.

    1. She calls for upgrading “crumbling and unsafe schools” and cites a 2017 survey that found half of America’s school buildings need improvements.

      Ditto

    2. Because if the states want to fund the projects they’re required to pay for them out of an existing budget, meaning they’ll have to raise taxes or cut spending somewhere, whereas the feds can just hand out free money. But you knew that.

      1. Massachusetts just passed a law that the state will cover whatever funding is lost if Title X gets cut. Now that they’ve passed it they’re going to start figuring out where the money will come from.

        1. Sometimes you just have to pass to see what’s in it. Or pay for it.

      2. I do find it interesting that everybody running has big plans for spending shitloads of money on new projects and when you ask them where the money is going to come from they all say these things are going to pay for themselves and, if not, they’re going to make the rich pay their fair share of taxes. So at least they do seem to recognize that this free shit ain’t free and that’s a start. Baby steps. Keep at it and maybe someday they’ll realize that unaffordable shit is unaffordable.

        1. It would also be nice if they would start to realize that every project failure isn’t due to lack of funding. Sometimes they’re just really dumb ideas.

        2. There is no recognition there. Both of those statements are just vague promises that pave over not actually having an answer. The only difference between saying “Rich will pay” and AOC saying “Who cares where it comes from?” is that AOC is too naive to lie yet.

          1. Sad part is She Guevara truly believes what she says.

  7. “closing loopholes that encourage U.S. companies to move jobs and operations overseas, establishing a financial risk fee on our largest banks, and increasing efforts for tax enforcement.”

    If it wasn’t a loophole when you wrote the law, it isn’t a loophole now.

    1. I hate the term loophole. It’s just a disgusting term which basically amounts to “People didn’t behave the way I wanted them to when I passed this law. WHY WON’T THEY JUST DO WHAT I WANT?!?!?”

  8. Decades of “small government” has meant Republicans spending trillions on pointless things. Eventually people will want their highways fixed instead of bombing brown people and giving tax breaks to billionaires.

    1. Try reading the article instead of engaging in your usual deflecting.

      1. Tony is incapable of educated thought.

      2. *Throws binder*

    2. Trump promised $1T for infrastructure in his campaign. That’s why you voted for him.

  9. “…outright boondoggles.”

    Well, yeah? And your point is?

  10. she has no chance anyway..

  11. What’s with the fetish for cars? Spending on roads and bridges is great but spending on railroad tracks is verboten? We have great freight rail in the U.S which is essential to the economy. It’s possible to create and maintain light passenger rail options that would reduce car congestion in cities. It’s done better all over the world. The problem with it in the U.S. is that the public transit contracts (even though most of them are contracted with private companies) are corrupted with crony capitalism and full of waste. Bad management not a bad idea.

    1. Bad management not a bad idea.

      But the absolute guarantee of bad management means it’s a bad idea.

    2. Freight doesn’t care that it has to make multiple transfers and wait for late night train trips. Passengers are much more sensitive to such issues.

    3. Only 16.7% of freight is moved by rail, while 57.7% is moved by truck. Even most of the rail freight has to be transferred to a truck for the first and last miles. As vital as freight rail may be to the economy, its not as vital as roads

      https://www.bts.gov/newsroom/ 2017-north-american-freight-numbers

  12. “”. It’s possible to create and maintain light passenger rail options that would reduce car congestion in cities.””

    Only if the citizenry will actually use the light rail. Most cities are not laid out in a way that is conducive to light rail. If light rail only gets you so far and you have to rent a cab the rest the way, most people will just drive.

    Manhattan is laid out in a way where rail works pretty good. When it’s working anyways. Yet there are still so many cars that traffic is problem.

    My old home town spent the money for a street car. The idea sounded good. It was in an area with a lot of night life, sites to see, and whatnot. Very, very few people ride it.

    Without citizen buy in, it’s a waste of money.

    1. Also worth noting that carpooling is often cheaper than taking a commuter train. It costs me about 250 dollars a month in gas and parking to drive to work, and a monthly train ticket is 180 dollars, so if its just me its cheaper to take the train (and when it was just me I did take the the train) but now my fiancee works downtown as well, so it would be 360 dollars for us both to take the train, vs still $250 for driving (maybe slightly more in gas due to having a passenger)

  13. This author knows little-to-nothing about how rural broadband is funded in this country. It’s done entirely with government subsidies administered through NECA based on prior year capital expenditures and O&M expenses, also adjusted based on volume of traffic flowing through the rural broadband’s system. NECA even administers payments between rural broadband providers. Most of those rural broadband providers are small cooperatives that serve large land areas that contain fewer than 10 consumers per mile – a demographic fact that, when combined with the expensive nature of building network infrastructure, makes unsubsidized broadband virtually impossible due to the incredibly high cost burden it would shift onto the individual consumers in rural markets.

    It’s a legitimate market failure that is being corrected by government subsidies. This is the same way we brought electricity to the rural markets in the 1930s — and happens to be governed by the same body (the Rural Utilities Service, administered by the USDA).

    So yes, government-owned broadband has been a failure, but lets not pretend that government subsidized broadband isn’t what has been funding these projects for decades.

    1. These *successful* projects for decades.

    2. It’s not a market failure, it’s a choice by people who choose to live in the country.

  14. One can only speculate where the money the Department of Transportation got for road repair, bridge repairs, etc. went.
    Maybe we should look in the Swiss, Cayman, or Malta banks to see if any of that money wandered in there somehow.

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  16. At least they do seem to recognize that this free shit ain’t free and that’s a start.

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