The Bridge to Better Infrastructure

Over 2.2 million people across the three states of Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio are encompassed in what is known as “Greater Cincinnati.” This surrounding tri-state area not only shares close proximity to Cincinnati, Ohio, but also a robust economy, rich culture, and love of Cincinnati sports and chili. I was born and raised in Northern Kentucky (NKY), a largely suburban area with a strong connection to the city that lies just across the Ohio River. As strong as these ties are, the very thread that sustains this connection and enables residents to travel around the metropolitan area could snap if not properly addressed. This thinning thread is our outdated, overburdened, and deteriorating infrastructure: the roads, bridges, and other critical facilities that are essential to the operation and development of the region. Unfortunately, the Greater Cincinnati area is just one case of a much broader problem of failing infrastructure casting a shadow over the entire nation.

The Brent Spence Bridge is a symbol of our nation’s infrastructural and political failures. The bridge carries the key interstates of I-75 and I-71 across the Ohio River, making it one of the busiest bridges in the United States. However, this bridge is plagued with problems: it is overburdened by carrying double its original intended capacity, was deemed “functionally obsolete” by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and has the second-worst traffic bottleneck in the nation. Both former President Barack Obama in 2011 and former President Donald Trump in 2017 specifically addressed the Brent Spence Bridge in their speeches in NKY and Cincinnati, promising infrastructure reform for both the region and the nation. The result? Little to no reforms were made. The rest of America’s infrastructure does not look any better, with the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently reporting for over a decade that a majority of U.S. infrastructure assets “exhibit significant deterioration” and are “of serious concern with strong risk of failure.” Now, well aware of past failures amending the Brent Spence and other infrastructure throughout the U.S., President Biden is putting forward his own plan. Despite 80% of Americans being in favor of strengthening investments in infrastructure,  there are numerous partisan and jurisdictional conflicts surrounding this legislation, thus complicating a seemingly simple issue.

Federalism and Infrastructure Responsibilities

The creation and maintenance of infrastructure projects in the United States are primarily under the jurisdiction of individual states and localities. Private entities, state governments, and local governments own about 97% of the nation’s nondefense infrastructure and fund 94% of it, including our interstate highways. The prominent role of state and local governments is the most logical, as they are in a position to understand their regional economic needs and interests best. 

The federal government, on the other hand, takes a more indirect approach to the issue. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution lays out all of the specific law-making powers that are delegated to the United States Congress, while all other powers that are not implied or explicitly delegated to the Federal Government are then delegated “to the States respectively, or to the people,” as per the 10th Amendment of the Constitution. One of the powers given to Congress in Article 1, Section 8 is found in the “Spending Clause,” which allows them to “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” With this power, the federal government wields the great tool of the grant, which sets up a system for disbursing federal funds to state and local governments. This is truly a useful tool for the federal government, as the states rely on federal grants to pay for some 28% of their infrastructure spending, and the federal government alone sets the guidelines for obtaining and spending these funds. 

For better or worse, the federalist system of government we have and its separate areas of jurisdiction lead to more complications in the process. Infrastructure solutions get especially complicated when it comes to shared infrastructure between states and the subsequent difficulty in obtaining federal funds due to disagreement and a lack of cooperation. In the context of the Brent Spence Bridge, this interstate conflict can be seen between Ohio and Kentucky. Ohio and the City of Cincinnati largely support the imposition of toll fees for those who use the bridge in order to fund repairs and new projects, while most in Kentucky oppose tolls as they believe it would hurt both Northern Kentucky commuters who have jobs in the city and the overall economic development of the region. In a statement on the Brent Spence Bridge, former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao pointed out the necessity of interstate cooperation, saying that “when there is consensus and agreement on a project, it speaks to the much greater probability of success,” as it allows for federal funds to be distributed confidently and with less difficulty.

Lacking State Government Action

The benefits of infrastructure reform are indisputable. Proper reform could eliminate the annual $120 billion costs caused by traffic congestion, generate $320 billion in economic output upon a spending increase of 1% of national gross domestic product (GDP), and create millions of American jobs. Undeniably, there is a large price tag attached to national reform: an estimated amount of over $2 trillion needed by 2025 – and this is only accounting for the needs of our current lagging infrastructure network, not the potential infrastructure opportunities of the future. This hefty price comes with the daunting task of finding the source for funding – something lacking consensus on all levels of government.

The gas tax is utilized by every state government and the federal government to raise revenues, and a state’s constitution typically mandates that these revenues go directly to the state’s “road fund,” specifically directed towards financing infrastructure. Kentucky’s current gas tax is 26 cents per gallon – coming on top of the current federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993 – and it has not been raised in over six years. For the past four years, though, a bill to raise the state gas tax to 36 cents per gallon has been introduced in the Kentucky General Assembly and is estimated to raise $300 million in tax revenues in an effort to address Kentucky’s deteriorating roads and $2 billion bridge repair costs. Proponents of the tax argue that this increase is needed, as the current rate generates only enough revenue to cover just 38.3% of state and local road spending needs. Gas tax increases have been proposed in many other states, but they are not too popular among the people. The gas tax and proposals to increase it garner support from a mere 32% of Americans. Opponents of the gas tax argue that it is a regressive tax that takes a greater percentage of income from low earners than high earners, which is reflected in the fact that the lowest income earners spent an average of 29% of their incomes on transportation costs. Some states end up biting the bullet and making the tough decision to raise the gas tax to fund their road-related infrastructure. However, for Kentucky and many other states, it seems they will defer to the federal government in hopes of finding a way to fill the fiscal gap in meeting infrastructure needs.

Federal Government Spending Plans and Bipartisan Bridges

On March 31st, the Biden Administration revealed the American Jobs Plan to modernize tens of thousand of miles of highways and roads, fix the ten most economically significant bridges in the country, and provide for numerous other infrastructural needs, such as high-speed broadband access and pipes for clean drinking water. Beyond traditional infrastructure, Biden’s plan includes hundreds of billions of dollars for additional “human infrastructure” projects, namely electric vehicle charging stations, government housing subsidies, universal preschool education and community college, and a number of other ambitious federal programs. The total cost of Biden’s plan is estimated to be a whopping $2.3 to 4.1 trillion. In order to pay for all of this, Biden plans on proposing an increase in the corporate tax rate from the current 21% (lowered from 35% by Trump) to 28% and a new 15% minimum tax on corporate profits reported to investors so that tax deductions will not allow for lower payments (an apparent targeting of the numerous corporations who paid $0 in federal tax). 

While Republicans would likely support investing in and rebuilding the nation’s traditional infrastructure network, that support comes to a halt when that proposed investment comes on top of trillions of dollars in expenditures for federal government subsidies funded in part by a significant reversal in the Republican tax cuts implemented in 2017. Legislators on the progressive end of the Democratic Party, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, are calling for Biden to go even bigger with his plan and aim for the progressive “ideal” of “$10 trillion over 10 years.” This led many Republicans to recognize that there is a great need to push for a modest bipartisan plan. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito has led the advocacy for a Republican infrastructure proposal of $568 billion focusing on roads and bridges, which constitutes more than half of the proposed expenditures, among other traditional infrastructure. Proposed funding for the GOP plan would potentially include increased user fees, the imposition of vehicle miles traveled fees, or a diversion of excess coronavirus relief funds. Ahead of infrastructure negotiations, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has drawn the line for spending at $800 billion, characterizing the rest of the proposed spending in Biden’s plan as “unrelated” to infrastructure. 

Ultimately, bipartisanship is a necessary component for the success of a final draft of infrastructure legislation. The filibuster is what forces a bipartisan approach, as its allowance for a senator to stall legislation through prolonged debate and irrelevant motions can only be overcome by a 3/5ths vote of the Senate body, meaning that a bipartisan coalition of at least 60 senators must be formed in order to end debate and pass the legislation. Recognizing this as not only a reality of the institution but an opportunity, President Biden has been advertising his eagerness for negotiations and a bipartisan consensus. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has criticized this strategy of compromise with the GOP and instead advocated for pursuing the tactic of budget reconciliation in order to avoid the filibuster altogether and vote on partisan lines. The problem with this shortcut tactic is that any portion of the plan deemed to be “extraneous matter” not primarily related to the budget faces the possibility of being cut out, potentially leaving Democrats with a hollow shell of the original proposal. In addition, states, cities, and the American people would be presented with legislation decided upon without the productive deliberation and exchange of ideas and concerns that come from the diverse range of backgrounds and values represented in Congress.

At the end of the day, the mere prospect of a solid bipartisan plan for appropriating federal funds for infrastructure is cause for relief in Cincinnati and cities across the nation. The give and take of partisan negotiations at the federal level is only the beginning of the battle for rebuilding American infrastructure. As mentioned previously, it is not the federal government that oversees the creation and subsequent maintenance of these infrastructure projects. Instead, our federalist system of government puts that responsibility in local hands. Therefore, leaders of both parties at all levels of government would be wise to build strong metaphorical bridges amongst themselves as we all make progress towards rebuilding America and finally building a new Brent Spence Bridge.

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