For infrastructure, candidates’ plans still leave many holes in the wall—some bigger than others

October 6, 2016

Americans feel the wide gap between needed infrastructure investment and the funds available for it. Families in Cedar Rapids, Iowa face flooding, children in Flint, Michigan are still drinking bottled water, and Washington, DC commuters face regular breakdowns in public transit.  

So it’s no surprise that the presidential candidates have started talking infrastructure. Clinton released her plan almost a year ago. Trump’s announcements last month about his plan to “build the next generation” of infrastructure provides us with the first opportunity to compare.

How much of an investment?

The shared sentiment in both plans is that the infrastructure gap is a major current and future crisis, and that it’ll take a lot of money to fix. Clinton proposes $300 billion in total investment over five years starting in the first 90 days of her term. She supplemented that proposal with related ones of different costs, such as expanding residential solar energy production.

Trump is thinking even bigger. He proposes to “at least” double Clinton’s proposed investment—a value that would come closer to meeting the expected gap and match former candidate Bernie Sanders’s infrastructure proposal.

Both candidates’ platforms would ostensibly yield the expected usual returns from infrastructure investments: jobs, improved services, broader service access, reduced transactional costs, improved household finances and health, and the overall productivity benefits to the country.

But Clinton and Trump’s proposal similarities end at the big-ticket purchase.

What does this investment get us?

Clinton has prioritized fixing existing transportation (filling in the potholes), expanding public transit and consumer broadband, and modernizing freight transport, airports, energy grids, and water supply and waste distribution. Included in this list of individual infrastructure pots is a more global reconsideration of how current formulas allocate federal funding to better target local needs. She also proposed earmarking $50 billion of the $300 billion to traditionally underserved communities after the Flint water crisis. My colleague, Tracy Gordon, discussed Clinton’s plan last year.

In comparison, Trump painted a broad brushstroke of need among “roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports, and airports.” His campaign has promised a detailed plan since last month’s announcement, but has not released one. If the recent debate provides any clues about Trump’s infrastructure priorities, though, airport modernization may be an early priority.

How do they pay for it?

Clinton’s plans rest squarely on public resources, with the $300 billion preliminary investment embedded in her wider tax and expenditure plans. She proposes $275 billion in direct spending, plus a $25 billion infrastructure bank advised by an independent board of experts to approve lending and loan guarantees that could leverage another $225 billion in financing. One proposed source of the $300 billion would be a tax overhaul for companies with foreign assets.

Trump proposes taking advantage of current low interest rates to issue infrastructure bonds—essentially borrowing money to cover the proposed bills. Presumably the impending proposal would detail just how these bonds would be issued and repaid.

What’s ahead?

The next step we may see is Trump’s campaign releasing more details on what and how he proposes spending infrastructure dollars allowing additional comparison between his and Clinton’s plan.

An additional complexity is the difficulty in getting any major spending initiative approved by future congresses. This challenge will be difficult to overcome for either candidate—and it’s one that neither plan takes into account yet.

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