McCain vs. Obama: Where do they stand on the infrastructure and transportation as the election approaches?

By Bob Keaton | September 28, 2010

No matter who is elected November 4, Republican or Democrat, the new President will have to address the nation’s transportation issues and the crumbling infrastructure – and soon.

Since the current transportation spending law expires in September 2009, Congress must reauthorize it next year. This will provide our 44th President with the opportunity to have a significant impact on the nation’s transportation and infrastructure well into this century.

The current law, approved in 2005, allocates $286 billion to highway and transportation projects. Reappropriating that amount will not be sufficient, given the fact that the nation’s roads, bridges, airports, ports and waterways are deteriorating to the point that our competitiveness is being threatened.

In fact, a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says it will take $1.6 trillion over five years to address the nation's infrastructure problems. A major reason it is in such bad shape is the decrease in federal funding. Building America’s Future, a coalition of elected officials advocating increased infrastructure funding, points out that while 50 years ago 10 percent of the non-defense spending was annually allocated to the infrastructure, the annual allocation has now dropped to less than 4 percent. A direct link to that decrease is congestion. A study by the Texas Transportation Institute estimates that congestion costs the nation $168 billion each year, with 40 percent of that due to bottlenecks in the system.

A well researched and planned approach is needed to deal with the transportation problems and the crumbling infrastructure, along with new funding sources. So how do the candidates propose to address this seemingly monumental problem? With the election quickly approaching, ACP went searching for answers as to what the presidential candidates’ positions are on transportation and the infrastructure. Here’s what we discovered.

Sen. McCain’s Plan

Sen. John McCain’s website offers a wealth of information on many issues ranging from ethics reform to gun rights, but no details on transportation. ACP asked his campaign office about this omission and requested that they provide us with some comments on the senator’s position. We did not receive a response.

However, this does not mean that Sen. McCain doesn’t think the infrastructure and transportation are important. For example, in a telephone interview with the American Automobile Association, which appeared in the association’s fall 2008 issue, Sen. McCain said, "We must have a 21st century transportation sector to underpin our modern economy. I’m committed to the modernization of all aspects – highway, rail, transit and beyond – of our transportation sector."

At the forefront of Sen. McCain’s campaign is a determination to end earmarks (often referred to as pork) in funding legislation, best evidenced by the now infamous "bridge to nowhere." "If Congress fails to recover from its addiction to earmarks, then crumbling bridges, congested highways, and crowded airports will continue much to the determent of all America," the senator has said. During the August 5, 2007, Republican Debate, he said, "I’ll veto every single bill that comes across my desk and make the authors of those pork barrel project (famous)…"

McCain’s plan to end earmarks has been well received by many who point out that earmarks divert money from more pressing infrastructure issues. AASHTO (the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) has estimated that earmarks account for about 15 percent of the current transportation law. Of course, the big question is: Can earmarks, so engrained in our legislative system, be totally eliminated, despite that fact that Sen. McCain has vowed that, as President, he will veto any bill containing them? Will such a threat be enough to get Congress to eliminate all earmarks? It seems highly unlikely but unless they do, and assuming Sen. McCain carries through on his threat, the nation could be in for a major battle between Congress and the President over all funding bills. And even if earmarks can be eliminated, how long would it be before some workaround surfaces?

As for funding, Sen. McCain has said little about how he would fund projects, how much funding he would advocate, and, more specifically, what projects or types of projects he would support for funding.

Sen. Obama’s Detailed Plan

In contrast to Sen. McCain’s website, Sen. Obama’s offers a detailed, four-page single-spaced plan on how he would strengthen and revitalize the nation’s highways, roads and bridges. He calls for the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to expand and enhance, but not supplant, existing federal transportation investments. The bank would:

  • Invest in the most challenging transportation infrastructure needs
  • Receive $60 billion over 10 years in federal money to provide financing to transportation infrastructure projects
  • Create up to 2 million new direct and indirect jobs per year (as a result of this funding)
  • Stimulate approximately $35 billion per year in economic activity

On his campaign website: under Additional Issues, you will also find detailed plans on how the Obama administration would:

  • Modernizing the outdated air traffic control system
  • Increase Amtrak funding
  • Support development of high-speed freight and passenger rail
  • Strengthen air transportation in underserved areas
  • Modernize our water infrastructure, including modernizing the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers’ system of locks and dams and strengthening levees
  • Improve public transportation and transportation planning

In addition, Sen. Obama says he will create a $25 billion emergency Jobs and Growth Fund to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, prevent cuts in road and bridge maintenance, and fund school repairs. The Highway Trust Fund is essentially empty because the federal tax on fuel, which is currently at 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, has not kept pace with inflation. It hasn’t been changed since 1993, the first year of the Clinton administration.

In his speech before the U. S. Conference of Mayors in June, Sen. Obama said, "When it comes to rebuilding America’s essential but crumbling infrastructure, we need to do more, not less. Maintaining our levees and dams isn’t pork barrel spending, it’s an urgent priority, and that’s what we’ll do when I’m President. The work will be determined by what will maximize our safety, security, and shared prosperity."

While Sen. Obama supports greater spending on the infrastructure at $60 billion, it’s still a long way from the $1.6 trillion (over five years) that the ASCE estimates will be needed to address the nation’s infrastructure problems.

Another issue surrounding Sen. Obama’s plan is the source of his proposed funding. While there has been mention of seeking private-sector funds, the bulk is targeted to come from the money saved by reducing the nation’s involvement in Iraq, something that has yet to be realized.

Candidates Echo Party Platforms

While the candidates are at the forefront, both the Republican and Democratic party platforms specifically address the issues of transportation and the infrastructure.

The Republican Party Platform, adopted September 1, 2008, first takes aim at funding and spending priorities. Under the section: Restoring Our Infrastructure it states: "The American people can have safer roads and bridges, better airports and more efficient harbors, as long as we straighten out the government’s spending priorities. The politics of pork (earmarks) distort the allocation of resources for modernizing the nation’s infrastructure. That can leave entire communities vulnerable to natural disasters and deprive others of the improvements necessary for economic growth and job creation. We pledge a business-like, cost-effective approach for infrastructure spending, always mindful of the special needs of both rural and urban communities."

The Republican platform further states: "We support a level of investment in the nation’s transportation system that will promote a healthy economy, sustain jobs, and keep America globally competitive. We need to improve the system’s performance and capacity to deal with congestion, move a massive amount of freight, reduce traffic fatalities, and ensure mobility across both rural and urban areas. We urgently need to preserve the highway, transit, and air facilities built over the last century so they can serve generations to come.

"Safeguarding our transportation infrastructure is critical to our homeland security. An integrated, flexible system – developed and sustained in partnership between state and local governments and the federal government – must also share responsibilities with the private sector. We call for more prudent stewardship of the nation’s Highway Trust Fund to restore the program’s purchasing power and ensure that it will meet the changing needs of a mobile nation."

The Democratic Party Platform, "Renewing America’s Promise," adopted August 25, 2008, specifically mentions devoting $50 billion to jumpstarting the economy, which "will include assistance to states and localities to prevent them from having to cut their vital services like education, healthcare, and infrastructure….We support investments in infrastructure to replenish the highway trust fund, invest in road and bridge maintenance…."

The Democratic Platform also mentions creating new jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure. "We will start a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that can leverage private investment in infrastructure improvements, and create nearly two million new good jobs." The platform goes on to say, "We need a national transportation policy, including high-speed rail and light rail. We can invest in our bridges, roads, and public transportation so that people have choices in how they get to work…."

A section entitled Metropolitan and Urban Policy calls for investment "in public transportation including, rail, expanded transportation options for low-income communities, and strengthen core infrastructure like our roads and bridges…."

"Safeguarding our transportation infrastructure is critical to our homeland security. An integrated, flexible system – developed and sustained in partnership between state and local governments and the federal government – must also share responsibilities with the private sector. We call for more prudent stewardship of the nation’s Highway Trust Fund to restore the program’s purchasing power and ensure that it will meet the changing needs of a mobile nation."

ARTBA’s Detailed Tracking

Although the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) does not endorse Presidential candidates, it does monitor the candidates’ positions on transportation and related issues. ARTBA has compiled a listing of relevant comments made by both the presidential and vice presidential candidates since mid-2007. These comments come from many sources -- on the senate floor, on the campaign trail, during debates, and on official campaign websites. To view the complete list of comments, click here:

No matter who is elected President, he will face a monumental task with regard to the nation’s transportation needs and deteriorating infrastructure. These issues won’t be resolved in one year or by one funding bill, but the reauthorization of the transportation spending law will be the beginning and leadership is desperately needed before that happens next year.