The President’s Infrastructure Plan – When $50 Billion Doesn’t Go as Far as it Used To

On February 20, 2013, the President released his Plan to Make America a Magnet for Jobs by Investing in Infrastructure, which calls for adopting a “fix-it-first” approach to infrastructure expenditure.  The Plan recycles the President’s proposal from the American Jobs Act (first rolled out in September 2011, and again in December 2012 as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations) for a $50 billion investment in transportation infrastructure.  The Plan proposes that $40 billion of that amount be devoted to “the most urgent upgrades” and repairs.  In addition, the Plan calls for establishing a “Rebuild America Partnership” that would include new bonding authority and a National Infrastructure Bank, and for cutting “timelines in half for infrastructure projects” through the modernization of permitting procedures.

The Plan also seeks to mollify skeptics of increased federal spending by arguing that not only are these investments necessary and overdue, but that the construction jobs these projects would create “cannot be outsourced”.   Indeed, transportation and infrastructure investment was a central component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — ultimately comprising $68.4 billion — precisely for this reason. 

The third time may yet be the charm for the President’s infrastructure proposal.  However, if the White House is looking to boost short-term construction jobs, a $50 billion proposal is large enough to attract significant adverse scrutiny from dedicated budget hawks in Congress — yet may not be large enough to convince enough legislators that the proposal’s impact on unemployment is worth their expending the necessary political capital to back it.  And if the White House is looking to address seriously the growing infrastructure repair backlog, a $50 billion proposal is far below the acknowledged need.  Indeed, the Plan itself concedes that $50 billion would only repair “almost 80 percent of structurally deficient bridges” – leaving not only 20 percent of such bridges unrepaired, but also leaving nothing for fixing highways, ports, subways, or airports.

In short, it may turn out that in the current political environment, a $50 billion proposal is paradoxically both too ambitious — and not ambitious enough.

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