Where the Democratic presidential candidates stand on infrastructure
While most campaign rhetoric has and will likely continue to be focused on healthcare, climate change and the broader economy, the Democratic presidential candidates are floating ideas for broadband internet, water and climate resilient construction.
Broadband seems to be at the top of the list for many candidates as they look to secure votes in rural areas, though only a handful of candidates have thorough infrastructure plans. Some candidates have proposed municipal broadband and water infrastructure, which could create new bonding opportunities.
Comparatively, infrastructure policies have not been as prominent compared to gun control and healthcare reform, said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“As long as we keep more candidates in the race, among those who are left, we can expect to see more infrastructure plans as we get closer and go through the Democratic primaries,” Tomer said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is leading the polls, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls conducted between the end of July and Aug. 14, followed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. So far, nine candidates are qualified for the September debates, according to CNN.
Warren came out of the gates on Aug. 7 with a comprehensive plan to expand broadband to rural areas. Currently, 26 states have laws that ban or place prohibitions on localities looking to build their own networks, according to BroadbandNow, a consumer-focused company that tracks broadband.
Warren wants to make it clear by way of a federal statute that municipalities would have the right to build their own broadband networks, returning the power to local governments, according to her plan posted on online publishing platform Medium. Warren is proposing a new Office of Broadband Access, which would manage a new $85 billion federal grant program. Only electricity and telephone cooperatives, as well as nonprofits, tribes, cities, counties and other state subdivisions would be eligible for the grants.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, voiced his support for federal investment in infrastructure through clean water and wastewater, rural broadband and climate adaption and resilience, according to his campaign website. This week, Buttigieg released his policy to strengthen rural economies, with an $80 billion Internet for All initiative to expand broadband coverage.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was one of the first to introduce her infrastructure plans, in March. In it, she supported authorizing Move America Bonds and promised to bring back Build America Bonds as part of a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan.
Notable, though he is not yet qualified for the September debates, candidate John Delaney unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan back in May. He plans to pay for his plan by raising the corporate tax rate to 27% and increasing the federal gas tax to inflation.
Delaney, a former congressman, also wants to increase the Highway Trust Fund with a one-time boost of $200 billion, which has been running on fumes for years.
Sanders promises to bring broadband internet to every American, but did not offer more details. Sanders says he wants to invest in infrastructure, specifically in front-line communities vulnerable to extreme climates.
In 2017, Sanders along with other Senate Democratic leaders called for a $1 trillion infrastructure plan called the “Blueprint to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure.” The plan would have allocated $210 billion to repair roads and bridges, $110 billion to modernize water and sewer systems and $180 billion to expand rail and bus systems, among other things.
Biden has promised to invest in wind and solar energy through spending similar to what occurred under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which he was in charge of during former President Barack Obama’s administration. The act invested $90 billion in clean energy technology, and Biden has plans to build on that to achieve a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
Biden also wants to invest $20 billion in rural broadband and triple Community Connect broadband grants. Those grants would go to state and local governments, tribes, non-profits and for-profit corporations and require a matching fund of at least 15% from non-federal sources, according to his campaign site.
Biden promised to make smart infrastructure investments to be sure that building, water, transportation and energy infrastructure can withstand climate change. He would use infrastructure funding to ensure rural communities have clean, safe drinking water, according to his public statements.
In the past, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has voiced her support for investment in infrastructure. However, there is no specific plan on her campaign site. She does mention modernizing transportation, energy and water infrastructure, but does not provide specifics.
In a tweet from 2018, Harris wrote, “We must invest in infrastructure to be able to create good paying jobs, connecting housing to opportunity, and ensure America can compete in the global economy."
Harris has also called infrastructure spending a human rights issue.
In late July 2019, Harris announced the Water Justice Act to supply safe, affordable and sustainable water. It would invest $250 billion in upgrades to water infrastructure.
The bill would allow for investment in communities and schools to test for and remove contaminants in water, including replacing toxic lead service lines. It would also support a broad range of sustainable water infrastructure projects.
Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, plans to mobilize $5 trillion to battle climate change. In his first bill he sends to Congress, O’Rourke said he will launch a 10-year mobilization of that money to spur climate change investment.
Money would go toward cutting pollution with $300 billion in direct resources through tax credits.
Sen. Cory Booker, D- N.J., has shown past interest in broadband infrastructure when he introduced the Community Broadband Act to help cities preserve the rights to build municipal broadband networks. It died in the Senate. He also helped to jump-start the Gateway Project, which seeks to update an 100-year-old Hudson River passenger rail tunnel.
Businessman Andrew Yang proposed a $1 trillion infrastructure investment initiative.
Though candidates seem to be picking up speed on infrastructure plans, the topic still won’t be a significant talking point during the campaign and is a lower tier issue.
“I would think the odds are that it will be ignored, frankly,” said Chuck Samuels, general counsel to the National Association of Health and Educational Facilities. “I think everybody will wave their hand at it, but I don’t know that it will be even a second-tier issue.”
President Donald Trump campaigned hard on infrastructure, and once the Democratic candidate pool narrows to one to debate against Trump, infrastructure may come up, but not in a productive way, Tomer said.
Infrastructure will be seen as a political failing on Trump’s part and not a policy goal, Tomer said. The Trump administration discussed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan, but conversation on funding quickly faded away in May.
“I would be shocked if that’s (policy goals) the play,” Tomer said.