Elections Finance Infrastructure

Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it?


» The Republican Party, despite its claims about the importance of infrastructure—and big promises from Donald Trump—pushes a more limited federal role. Democrats, in line with Hillary Clinton, advocate large new investments.

During an election year where trade and terrorism have taken center stage, it’s hardly surprising issues related to transportation have played a limited role in the national discussion about how to move the U.S. forward. Some have noted that urban policy has largely been ignored, despite the fact that many American cities continue to face considerable problems related to public investment, poverty, and economic growth.

Yet the reality is that the Democratic and Republican parties and their respective candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have laid out positions on the future of the nation’s transportation system through party platforms, candidate issue memos, and public statements. The approval of the two parties’ platforms over the past two weeks motivated me to provide a detailed summary of the differences between the platforms.

On issues related to the funding, mass transit, biking, and the environment, the two parties have staked out dramatically different views about how they envision the future of the nation’s transportation system. Democrats are proposing an expansive increase in federal support for transportation investment, with a focus on building access to opportunity, bolstering access to non-automobile modes, reducing the impacts of climate change, and maintaining the role of unions.

Republicans, on the other hand, propose no increase in federal spending (though Mr. Trump may disagree), an elimination of the federal role in funding non-automotive transportation, an emphasis on pollution-spewing modes and energy sources, and a reduction in the role of unions.

A summary of the proposals

Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton Republican Party and Donald Trump
Federal role in transportation Expand to emphasize multimodalism; encourage connections between transportation, cities, climate, and social equity Reduce to only encompass highways (GOP); or fund all types of transportation (Trump)
Funding for transportation Roughly double overall spending using business tax reform, create infrastructure bank Do not adjust funding to inflation (GOP); or expand massively through unknown means (Trump)
Transit and intercity rail Increase support to build social equity and combat climate change Eliminate federal role (GOP); or improve (Trump)
Non-motorized modes Improve funding for biking and walking projects Eliminate federal role
Climate change Orient transportation investments toward responding to climate change Do nothing to address climate change; invest in coal
Project management Support union requirements Eliminate union requirements

Here are the resources for your own evaluation:

Before I delve into the details of the differences between the two parties’ policy proposals, it is vital to emphasize that party platforms and the positions of presidential candidates hardly guarantee the enactment of policy; there is a big difference between agreeing on a proposal and actually legislating change. In many ways, the Democratic and Republican platforms in 2016 are quite similar to those in 2012, and much of the suggestions then have not even been discussed in the halls of Congress, let alone been implemented. For change to occur, presidents need support from members of the House and Senate, who may come from other the other party or who may simply not care about the same issues.

Nevertheless, understanding how the parties and their candidates differ is essential to understanding the dynamics of this election and can help us evaluate how to vote this fall.

The role of the federal government

The Republican platform notes almost at the start of the document that “Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports.”

This sentiment—that transportation is a bipartisan or apolitical issue—is often repeated by proponents of investment in the nation’s infrastructure as an argument for making it a priority and getting representatives to work together across the aisle. Yet the divergence in goals for the nation’s transportation programs between the Democratic and Republican parties this year show that transportation is quite a political issue, one that is subject to debate and which elicits quite different policy prescriptions.

That’s a good thing! It means that our electoral process can influence how the future of our transportation system looks, and that questions about what transportation is right are subject to public debate, not bureaucratic, expert-driven, and hidden policy making.

The difference between how Democrats and Republicans think about transportation is a reflection of the two parties’ respective views of the federal government’s role.

Republicans use their platform to express a limited view of Washington’s contribution to the infrastructure system, and define the government’s role strictly. “We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government,” the platform states. For Republicans, this has a specific meaning: The federal government should only spend transportation money on automobile commuters (I document the specifics below).

Indeed, the Republican mentality on transportation investment can perhaps best be summarized in its assessment of President Obama’s policies:

“The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to ‘coerce people out of their cars.'”

This argument, perhaps, is founded on the idea that highways travel between states and that the road network, especially the Interstate one (originally funded by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower), goes between states and therefore needs a federal role. Anything other than that is removed from discussion.

Democrats, on the other hand, have a far broader view of how the federal government should act. The party platform notes that “We need major federal investments to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and put millions of Americans back to work… we will dramatically increase federal infrastructure funding for our cities—making significant new investments in roads and bridges, public transit…” Ms. Clinton’s policy on transit is diametrically opposed to that of the Republicans; her campaign’s mentality can be summarized in the following statement:

“This underinvestment is particularly costly for many low-income communities and communities of color, as a dearth of reliable and efficient public transportation options often creates a huge barrier to Americans attempting to build better lives. Clinton will prioritize and increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities…”

The Democratic platform explicitly connects the need to rebuild and expand the nation’s multimodal transportation system as an effort not only to improve mobility, but also to add jobs, “expand the middle class,” address “the climate emergency,” and improve quality of life in the nation’s cities and suburbs. In other words, for Democrats, the federal role should not only grow in size, but also in breadth, encompassing the role transportation plays in realms of life that are affected by transportation, beyond transportation infrastructure investment itself.


The Democratic Party’s position on funding the national transportation system is easier to explain than the Republican one because Ms. Clinton and her party appear to be largely on the same page. The party’s platform, as noted above, suggests an expanded federal and more federal funding, and so does Ms. Clinton. In fact, her policy prescription is a $275 billion boost in funding over five years, of which $250 billion would go directly to public infrastructure investment. This program is similar to the funding proposals President Obama has put forward over the past eight years and it would roughly double funding allocations for transportation in the U.S. Like previous Obama Administration proposals, the plan would be fully funded through business tax reform, not (historically more typical) user fees such as an increase in the gas tax. I am not qualified to judge whether this funding proposal is realistic or not.

Both the party platform and Ms. Clinton would reauthorize the Build American Bond program and the platform notes that the party would “continue to support the interest tax exemption on municipal bonds,” both of which would allow local governments to fund more transportation investment at the local level.

Ms. Clinton also emphasizes potential expansion of the TIGER grant and TIFIA loan programs, which have been boons for cities across the country investing in local projects from the Cincinnati Streetcar to the Chicago Riverwalk. In addition, she points to a potentially revolutionary change by suggesting the “launch [of] a pilot program to explore new ways of getting formula funding, including formula highway funds, directly into the hands of local governments.” This would allow cities and counties to receive their transportation funding allocations from Washington without getting the funds passed through from the states first.

The Republican platform essentially takes the opposite tack. The document notes that “with most of the states increasing their own funding for transportation, we oppose a further increase in the federal gas tax.” While the platform does recognize the importance of infrastructure, it suggests that the federal government should not be paying for any more of it, rather focusing on “remov[ing] legal roadblocks to public-private partnership agreements” to “expand the carrying capacity of roads and bridges.”

Mr. Trump has expressed a very different view of the federal role on transportation infrastructure investment. During a debate, he noted that the U.S. should have spent the money it used on wars on infrastructure; “if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges and all of the other problems… we would’ve been a lot better off.” According to an article by Eric Levitz in New York, Trump has described a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan… one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken.” He has spoken positively of the New Deal, which was a vast federal program that runs contrary to Republican orthodoxy.

Unlike Ms. Clinton, though, Mr. Trump has provided no details on his infrastructure funding plans. He has provided no information on exactly how much funding he would actually provide, how that money would be allocated, and how the money would be raised. It is difficult to take the ideas he has noted in speeches seriously, particularly since his colleagues in the House and Senate would be working off the party’s anti-federal-investment platform.

Public transportation and intercity rail

Mr. Trump has similarly articulated views contrary to the rest of his party with respect to transit and intercity rail. He has expressed excitement by the speed of Chinese high-speed trains, while American ones “go chug… chug… chug,” according to him. And he has noted that “we have to spend money on mass transit… we have to spend a lot of money.”

The Republican platform, on the other hand, argues strongly against funding transit, noting that “we propose to phase out the federal transit program.” The argument is that “mass transit [is] an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities.” This is an exaggeration (the top ten transit cities account for 47 percent of U.S. transit commuters), but it is worth noting that Republicans have in recent years received few votes in cities, which are dominates by Democratic voters, which provides one explanation for their reluctance to invest in transit.

Intercity rail is similarly held in contempt; the platform notes that taxpayers “must subsidize every [Amtrak] ticket” and that “we reaffirm our intention to end federal support for boondoggles like California’s high-speed train to nowhere.” The Republican policy is to “allow private ventures to provide passenger service in the northeast corridor” (which is the one place where Amtrak is profitable). The platform does not explicitly suggest defunding the public rail agency, however.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign, on the other hand, suggests “buil[ding] a faster, safer, and higher-capacity passenger rail system… to meet rapidly growing demand and build a more mobile America.” While in Florida, she affirmed her support for that state’s canceled project; “we’re going to do more to fight climate change by getting more cars off the road and more passengers into high-speed rail.”

She has also noted significant support for transit. Her campaign notes that “Hillary will increase investments in public transit to connect Americans to jobs, spur economic growth, and improve quality of life in our communities.” She has made no such commitment to investing in highways or roadway infrastructure.

Non-motorized modes

Rarely discussed and even more rarely funded are non-motorized transportation modes like biking and walking, which nonetheless could play a growing role in the national transportation system if political actors made an effort to emphasize them in planning and funding. Between 20 and 40 percent of all trips in European countries are conducted by cycle or by foot, and this is a model a federal transportation policy could emulate if the political conditions were right.

In the Republican Party platform, however, these modes are dismissed as outside of the federal purpose. The document recommends that “bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping…” be no longer funded through the federal transportation program. The document notes that “these worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources,” which, based on the platform’s overall tone, suggests that the states should take up the cause.

Ms. Clinton’s campaign policy presents an entirely different message, noting that “she will also support bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure—reducing carbon emissions, improving public health and safety, and further providing Americans with affordable transportation options.” Given Ms. Clinton’s overall campaign message supporting a continuation of Barack Obama’s presidency, it seems likely that this could come in the form of TIGER grants and an emphasis on multimodalism in other grants.

Climate change

Transportation accounts for about 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fuel, and while the U.S. has made substantial progress over the past few decades in improving the efficiency of household appliances, electronics, lighting, and power plants, the transportation industry continues to be a major polluter. The Obama Administration has required significant increases in automobile fuel economy, which is an important step, but more action is needed if the U.S. is to reach the goals it agreed to as part of last year’s Paris agreement.

The Democratic platform integrates climate change as an essential issue (the “climate challenge,” as the document calls it) throughout, and the language is particularly strong in the sections related to transportation. The party notes “we will protect communities from the impact of climate change and help them to mitigate its effects by investing in green and resilient infrastructure… We will transform American transportation by reducing oil consumption through cleaner fuels, vehicle electrification increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, boilers, ships, and trucks. We will make new investments in public transportation and build bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across our urban and suburban areas.” The goal is to “reduc[e] greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.”

While the Republican Party has been resistant to acknowledge the existence of climate change at all in recent years, this year’s platform strikes a somewhat softened tone, nothing that “climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue.” While seemingly recognizing that global temperatures are rising, the platform suggests that the answer is to do nothing about it; there is no mention of the role of transportation in increasing pollution. In addition, the platform seems to encourage the further use of polluting sources for powering the increasingly electrified transportation system, noting that “the Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.”

Project management

Both Ms. Clinton’s policy language and the Republican platform suggest they plan to streamline permitting to reduce transportation construction costs. The Republicans specifically note that they would “reform provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act.” Neither has been particularly specific on those reforms, however.

The Republicans, who rarely sympathize with organized labor, emphasize a “repeal of the Davis-Bacon law,” which requires federally supported projects to pay workers “prevailing wages,” that are often quite a bit higher than the wages paid to non-union workers. Democrats, on the other hand, “support high labor standards… and the right to form or join a union.”

One item of note is the “Buy America” rule that most federal transportation projects include and which, in essence, requires that most components of a construction project be made in America, and which, in some cases, increases costs and may reduce quality. During his speech in support of Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Governor and Trump campaign supporter Chris Christie criticized Ms. Clinton for not supporting Buy America. It is true that Ms. Clinton and President Obama did, in fact, oppose a Buy America provision, but it is also true that, confusingly, Mr. Christie himself vetoed legislation related to Buy America. Even so, both parties have supported Buy America in the past and are likely to do so into the future.

How about the other parties?

Recent polls suggest that the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties would collect more than 80 percent of the vote if the election were held today, and no third party has ever won a U.S. presidential election. Nevertheless, I would be remiss to ignore the Green and Libertarian parties, whose candidates could play an important role in the 2016 election.

The rather short Libertarian Party’s platform, approved in May, says nothing about transportation directly. The party “call[s] for the repeal of…all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution” and states that “governments should not incur debt.” Each of these clauses suggest that a Libertarian government would push for the elimination of all but “post roads” (which are included in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8). Based on this, the Libertarian Party led by presidential candidate Gary Johnson would not support federal loan programs such as TIFIA or federal support for mass transit.

The Green Party platform takes a significant stand in favor of investment in mass transit and other “ecologically sound forms of transportation that minimize pollution and maximize efficiency.” The Green Party, led by presidential candidate Jill Stein, would also “place a moratorium on highway widening,” “eliminat[e] free parking,” and “make streets, neighborhoods and commercial districts more pedestrian friendly.”

Photo at top: From Flickr user Colleen P (cc).

16 replies on “Both parties claim support for investing in infrastructure. But how will they do it?”

The GOP Party platform lumps three truths with one insanely falsely statement about coal, “The Democratic Party does not understand that coal is an abundant, CLEAN, affordable, reliable domestic energy resource.” Extracting and burning coal is never clean, see

By including preservation of coal statements in their party platform, the GOP affirms that it is beholden to the Coal Lobby and ignoring Climate Change. Burning oil and natural gas for transportation are not much better than coal, but since natural gas is less polluting than oil, its domestic and its abundant, America needs natural gas as “bridge transportation fuel”, while we build up solar, wind and environmentally sustainable wave energy in our fuels mix.

We also know that since 1982, the GOP has been hypocritical about federal investment in modes of transportation that cross state boundaries. Without debate, the GOP passes every Federal Aviation funding bill ($16-17 billion/year), but refuses to invest ($5-6 billion/year) in an Interstate High Speed Rail System sponsored by President Obama.

Though its nice to hear Trump acknowledging America’s overdue need for investment in new HSR, more Transit and Highway repair, I have ZERO faith that he would fiercely negotiate a transportation bill with a GOP Congress that is worthy of America. In contrast, Hillary and a Democratic Senate would negotiate to include some HSR and significantly more Transit funding in order for the GOP House to receive Highway funding in their Congressional Districts.

I could not agree more with Thomas Dorsey’s comments.

The irony is that although Mr. Trump is a New Yorker, he and his fellow Republicans have not said a word about Amtrak’s desperate need for new Hudson River tunnels and associated Penn Station and NEC upgrades. I guess he and others don’t care.

Now we hear that New York MTA is going to take the “L” Train out of service for 18 months because of repairs to the East River tunnels damaged by Sandy. They could use Federal help to speed up the project and/or provide alternate service. I am not holding my breath.

@ Frank Mastroly

Those funds for fixing the L train are Federal Sandy relief dollars. That’s the only way they could come up with the cash to fix them, and there was a deadline on when the money could be spent, so they had to come to a decision, which we found out about this week.

Federl dollars present a slew of problems, unfortunately, in that they come with caveats. Take the JFK AirTrain. Paid for with post-9/11 dollars, but with the caveat that it couldn’t be applied to an MTA system expansion, it had to be PA specific (hence the Jamaica transfer, when they should’ve sent the A train into that loop).

@Thomas Dorsey. I fail to see if the GOP lawmakers are passing every Federal Aviation funding bill they are not funding interstate travel. Perhaps you exclude air from interstate travel? For what reason do I or you need a train to take us to LA when we have numerous planes that can take us there on whatever schedule we need? Why should we spend all that money to build something we don’t need? What about all the land owners that would lose property to build this infrastructure we don’t need? What gives you the right to screw them for the purpose of building a means of transportation that will perpetually need more and more funding to support? Further, how much of that money is yours and how much are you expecting me to pay? In short, as an engineer, what you and Obama propose, only makes sense for those demanding others pay to make your life easier. No thank you good sir!

Congress passes every Federal Aviation bill without issue, which is a good thing. But one can endlessly debate why Congress and several Presidents have underfunded every surface transportation bill since 1982.

The state is growing from ~30 million in 2008-ish to ~45 million in 2040. Current highways and airports are at or approaching capacity. California does not have a NO BUILD option to address traffic congestion. Hence, California’s two Build Transportation options became as clear, as they are diametrically opposite:

A. Spend less taxpayer funds with some private investment for 2-track-lane California HSR thereby, REDUCING oil consumption, freeway & airport traffic congestion, smog, and greenhouse gases with less lawsuits.


B. Spend far more taxpayer funds without private investment for another lengthy 8-lane freeway (includes shoulder & median) & airport expansion, thereby INCREASING oil consumption, taking of land, freeway & airport traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases with more lawsuits.

Ditto for Las Vegas to Los Angeles traffic congestion. Read more at

One more thing …

Airlines have canceled flights from SF Bay Area and LA to most Central Valley cities (Bakersfield, Palmdale, Modesto, Fresno, Stockton) because their labor + fuel EXPENSE to “Short-flight” REVENUE became unprofitable. 8 of the 9 largest airports in California can not be expanded.

Stockholders demand profitability over service. In the near future, airlines serving SF Bay Area, LA, San Diego and Las Vegas airports will also prefer to use more of their scarce landing slots & gates for higher revenue long-distance flights.

@Bob the Engineer

Well, if you’re going to bring up air travel, then I should mention the Essential Air Service Program which is a huge waste of money. It requires air service be subsidized in smaller cities/rural areas so people can have access to the national network. For example, where I live in Iowa, Fort Dodge and Mason City are both airports that fall under the EAS Act. Both fly regularly scheduled service to Chicago and St. Louis (granted they use small Cessna Caravan’s that seat like 8 people) but this also requires those airports to be fully staffed with TSA members and comply with all that stuff. Kind of a waste of money when those airports will see like 3 passengers a day.

In the book, Train Time by John Stilgoe, he argues in these situations these smaller communities would be better served by rail in order to funnel them to larger airports where they could get on the national network. Keeping with the Iowa example, that could be rail service to either Des Moines or Minneapolis/St. Paul.

That’s not to mention the airports themselves, which are publicly funded. Imagine if United Airlines owned Chicago O’Hare, they could keep all the best gates to themselves and screw other airlines over for red-eye only departure or arrival times. Also, you would need some 3rd party air traffic controller personnel too, but the Private Sector could probably at least do that.

Rail is completely unnecessary (as is EAS). These communities would be better served by a couple buses a day on existing roads.

1. Can you convince enough passengers to catch buses, when many will be stuck in highway traffic, like cars and trucks?

2. Can buses go from SF to LA (450 miles or less) in under 3 hours to be a viable alternative to flying?

3. Can buses deliver 97-98% on-time performance between LA and SF, like world-class HSR does between other large cities?

4. Can buses transport 2 Boeing 747’s number of passengers every 10 minutes?
Theoretically, yes. But as Greyhound and Megabus have figured out, that passenger volume makes no sense for their business models in terms of equipment, labor and fuel cost – even if they could magically attract an order of magnitude more travelers from planes and cars.

For clarification …

Though buses are inadequate passenger solutions in 500-mile corridors containing 2 to 4 Top 40 Metro Areas, Buses do make sense for many small cities to small cities and a number of small cities to large Metro Areas.

I would support short rail spurs (i.e. A light rail system) if it was warranted but it had to financially work. As far as I understand, all rail systems require ongoing public funding. Expanding a nationwide rail doesn’t make sense, given the challenges to do so, economically, environmental, lack of dedicated land requiring eminent domain (public theft of private property, yes sometimes justified), etc. Amtrack requires significant funding to operate on its corridor. You also ignore taxis and other private means of travel. It is absurd that someone should be able to take a rail and pay substantially less than someone that drives a car. That’s because rails have at least as much infrastructure to maintain. I get the point about connecting communities however your agenda to connect then so somebody can live two hiurs from downtown LA and take a train in cheating on example), should be reviewed as a local system, not as a nationwide rail system. As you pointed out, long distances are adequately served by air travel.

Beyond a short distance, taxis become very expensive for travelers (depending on the fares set for the area) so I don’t think they are a practical alternative for rail.

Bob the Engineer wrote,
“As far as I understand, all rail systems require ongoing public funding. Expanding a nationwide rail doesn’t make sense, given the challenges to do so, economically, environmental, lack of dedicated land requiring eminent domain”

Several responses.

First, 135-150 mph, moderate frequency Amtrak Acela DOES run at an operating profit and 110-mph, Amtrak Keystone (NYC-Philly-Harrisburg) is very close to profitability. The profitability milestone is significant because it occurred before the Bos-NYC-Wash corridor is upgraded to support 200 mph, higher frequency trains, like Europe and Asia.

Second, our national population is growing from 200 million in 1969 to 400 million by 2040-ish. Over 80% of our pop. is settling in our Top 100 Metro Areas. Most of those metro areas string in corridors at 40 to 300 miles apart. Those are perfect stop distances for HSR, but they are labor & fuel inefficient for commercial jets.

Third, you must take more land for Interstate Highways in order to have the carry capacity of HSR trains. To be specific, you need to expense to take at least 8 lanes worth of land for Interstate Highways vs. less land for only 2 HSR tracks. Citizens won’t let most California Metro Areas take land for airport expansion, At the end of the day, its a lot more expensive and in many case impossible to take land for Highway and Airport expansion.

Fourth, on a continuous basis, it is less noisy for farm land next to HSR tracks than next to Interstate Highway. By policy, HSR tracks can be made inactive between 12:30a and 5am for quiet. Try shutting down Interstate Highways from 12:30a and 5am every night.

Fifth, in terms of environmental impact, its not even close. Airplanes emit Nitrous Oxide, Carbon Dioxide and Contrails high in the clouds, where Green House Gases do the most harm. The most voluminous NOx + CO2 + Methane emitters are short flight commercial jets, like LAX to SFO and LAX to Vegas and Dallas to Houston, etc. Single and double-passenger cars driving long distance are the next worst CO2 and Methane emitters. Electric HSR is a stunning contras to them. When more electric power plants add solar and wind energy, the lifecycle advantages of HSR energy become even more attractive.

Excellent, largely objective analysis of the critical role of transportation policymaking and where the parties stand. This article should be published in some form (perhaps partially condensed, if necessary) on other news & politics sites, those beyond a transportation focus. Freemark has basically done the research that traditional journalists used to do!

IF anything this goes to show that Trump is a positive, if unorthodox, influence on the Republican Party. I’m not exactly a fan of him, but he’s much more pro-infrastructure than the rest of his party. And as President he would probably drag the GOP kicking and screaming to the center, as the nativists in the party will eat ANYTHING if it has America First stamped on it.

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