Traffic is at a standstill on Interstate 65 northbound as officials work to clear abandoned vehicles in Hoover, Ala. Jan. 29, 2014.

A whole new (and far worse) approach to U.S. infrastructure

It didn’t generate a lot of attention, but the House did something entirely unexpected last week: it actually passed an important bill without a lot of drama. The nation’s Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of money on Nov. 20, pushing Congress to do something before the infrastructure deadline, and in his first tangible victory, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) advanced a six-year package, carrying a $340 billion price tag.
The final vote was surprisingly lopsided: 363 to 64. Most of the opponents were far-right lawmakers, but they didn’t come close to derailing the bill. The Ryan honeymoon is apparently real.
It’s not yet a done deal – the House bill will have to be reconciled with a related Senate bill – but given the usual crisis atmosphere on Capitol Hill when a deadline nears, it’s refreshing to see a process go relatively smoothly, at least for now.
But in an interesting twist, some Republican presidential candidates are watching these developments with a wary eye, arguing that Congress shouldn’t be investing in infrastructure much at all.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum is backing a plan to cut the 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax, which pays for most federal transportation projects, by about 15 cents. 
“We need to get the federal government out of this infrastructure business, other than vital economic highways,” the former Pennsylvania senator said [in Tuesday’s undercard debate]. “It has been said that if we cut the gas tax to three to five cents and send the rest back to the states, and just take care of the federal infrastructure that’s vital for our economy,” he continued, “we don’t need the federal government in the road business that it is today.”
A little context is probably in order. The Highway Trust Fund, which plays a central role in financing infrastructure projects, is financed through a federal gas tax that hasn’t changed in two decades. The result has been a disaster for much of the country – the resources simply don’t exist anymore to keep up with the nation’s infrastructure needs. U.S. investments have dropped to levels unseen in generations, at least in part because congressional Republicans won’t increase the gas tax.
Santorum’s idea is to decrease the gas tax to almost nothing, and dramatically curtail the federal role in infrastructure investments across the board.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. “Sure, Santorum is saying this, but so what? The guy is at roughly 0% in the polls.” That’s true. But he’s not the only one making this argument.
The idea of a presidential candidate advocating federal disinvestment in American infrastructure may sound ridiculous and regressive – because, well, it is – but Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign also unveiled a transportation plan this week, and it’s largely identical to Santorum’s.
A Rubio administration intends to slash the federal gas tax that finances infrastructure projects by 80%, and then turn over investments “to the states.”
Santorum may not be competitive, but Rubio – the one most pundits keep saying may very well be our next president – is a top-tier contender, who’s every bit as conservative on this issue.
In the not-too-distant past, highways and prioritizing American infrastructure was entirely bipartisan. There’s nothing Democratic or Republican about roads, bridges, runways, rail, and ports. But those days are ending – and the GOP line on infrastructure is headed for the right-wing cliff.