There is little doubt South Carolina could use some infrastructure upgrades. The most obvious example is the deepening of Charleston harbor, but there are highways, bridges and airports that could use a boost as well.
So, mention President-elect Donald Trump’s $1 trillion dream of rebuilding the U.S. transportation landscape, and there’s a willingness to listen among South Carolina’s congressional delegation.
Trump’s election means Republicans control the White House, Senate and House. But the president-elect’s plan won’t be an easy sell within his own party.
Winning over the overwhelmingly Republican and conservative S.C. congressional contingent is important to any chances Trump will have as president of passing his still lightly detailed plan.
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Some Democrats, traditionally more willing supporters of infrastructure projects, are suspicious. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says the plan “is a scam” to benefit the rich.
The plan was, however, central to Trump’s campaign and wildly popular among his supporters at rallies. “We are going to rebuild our infrastructure,” Trump said repeatedly both during the campaign and since being elected. “They will be second to none.”
But $1 trillion is a lot of money.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-Indian Land, has said fiscally conservative members of Congress understand the need for high-quality roads and bridges.
U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-Seneca, has said he is willing to consider any proposal that makes the United States more competitive economically.
Speaking to reporters last month, Graham said, “We can agree on the need to rebuild our roads and bridges. We can agree on the need to deepen Charleston harbor.”
The question is how to pay for it.
The total discretionary U.S. budget – over which Congress has some control – is a bit more than $1 trillion a year.
Michael Sargent, who analyzes trends in federal spending at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said it is unlikely the government will be able easily to find $1 trillion for infrastructure, money intended to be spread out over 10 years.
The worst possible option would be a general tax increase to pay the infrastructure bill, he said. Paying from existing federal money also is problematic, he added. Trying to do that is likely to increase the federal deficit.
Sargent said there are two basic thoughts on how an infrastructure program could work. First, local governments should be given the responsibility of deciding what needs to be done. Second, projects should be paid for with user fees.
“An increase in the gas tax is the traditional way to fund road and bridge work,” Sargent said. “But with improved gas mileage and more and more electric vehicles, the gas tax is an imperfect system.”
He said Oregon’s experiment of using mileage-tracking devices on vehicles to tax drivers per mile, rather than per gallon, is a promising alternative. Toll roads and bridges are another alternative.
Airport user fees should support airports, he said. Of the projects being considered, the most justified would be the deepening of ports.
But overall, he said, the Trump plan makes a fundamental mistake.
“If you look at the underlying data, our infrastructure fares pretty well,” Sargent said. “Structurally deficient bridges are pretty rare. Our highway road quality is pretty good.
“What we need is better maintenance. We don’t need big, shiny new projects that politicians can use for ribbon-cutting photos. We need targeted investment. We need that investment to be directed at a local level.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Charleston, keeps a computer monitor at the entrance to his Capitol Hill office that shows the constantly growing U.S. debt. In the past week, the monitor showed that debt moving toward $20 trillion.
Sanford said he views all federal spending through that lens. Given that, Sanford said deepening Charleston harbor falls into a different category of need. The harbor “is one of a handful in the East Coast that can be made to accept the new, larger Panama Canal cargo ships. It’s a national treasure. It should be a national priority.”
Beyond the port, which is in his home district, “Infrastructure should wait,” Sanford said, adding it isn’t needed right now.
“The national economy is actually good right now,” he said. “Unemployment is quite low.”
Overall, U.S. unemployment is about 4.9 percent.
“It’s not paid for, and if it’s not paid for, your money goes into growing U.S. infrastructure, but at the same time sinks the national economy by creating more debt,” he said.