Republicans seem to be running scared on infrastructure spending. On May 14, National Review’s editors advised no compromise when Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell suggested spending up to $800 billion on an infrastructure package negotiated with Democrats. Now, less than two weeks later, Republicans are rolling out a counterproposal of around $1 trillion.
Time flies when you’re spending other people’s money.
There was once a time when Republicans understood that voters do not always reward infrastructure spending. It was the last time they were going into the midterm elections during the first term of a Democratic administration.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, President Obama’s “shovel-ready jobs” Keynesian stimulus package aimed at recovery from the Great Recession, was passed without a single Republican vote in the House and only three Republican votes in the Senate (Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, and soon-to-be-Democrat Arlen Specter).
When that money got to the states, newly elected Republican governors in 2010 promised to turn away money for wasteful rail projects. And they did.
In Ohio, John Kasich defeated incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland while promising that a $400 million passenger-rail line from Cleveland to Cincinnati would be “dead” if voters cast their ballots for Kasich. As governor, Kasich kept to his word.
In Florida, Rick Scott won the governor’s mansion and rejected $2.4 billion in federal funding to build high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando. “Government has become addicted to spending beyond its means and we cannot continue this flawed policy,” Scott said at the time.
In Wisconsin, $810 million in stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison was one of the biggest issues in the gubernatorial campaign. Scott Walker opposed it the entire campaign and defeated Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who promised to see the project through. Walker, too, killed the high-speed rail project.
After the projects in Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin were canceled, the Department of Transportation insisted that the money had to be spent on rail projects. Kasich, Scott, and Walker had hoped to use the money on other transportation-related projects, but the Department of Transportation stuck to its position and the Republican governors let the money be redistributed to other states.
After the dust had cleared, Obama’s secretary of transportation, Ray La Hood, testified to Congress in December 2011 that despite Republican resistance, “Thirty-two states, the District of Columbia, and Amtrak are hard at work on over 150 projects, many of which are among the most substantial capital improvements to the nation’s rail network in decades.” He promised that “Americans will soon begin seeing significant travel time, frequency, and reliability improvements, in addition to upgraded stations and equipment.”
That was ten years ago. Have you seen any of those benefits?
With a few exceptions (such as the mournful 2019 podcast from Wisconsin Public Radio called Derailed) hardly anyone is missing Ohio, Florida, or Wisconsin’s canceled rail projects. Each of them would have run parallel to existing interstate highways for much of their routes. And states that got the money instead have been saddled with never-ending projects with ballooning costs.
California’s high-speed rail project seems like a nightmare that would jolt John Stossel awake in a cold sweat — but it’s real life. In 2008, California voters approved $9 billion in borrowing to build a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The 2020 Business Plan for the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that stretch will cost $69 billion to $100 billion to complete. Only 119 miles of the 494-mile proposed route is even under construction. California hasn’t completed environmental review for 295 miles of the route.
That hasn’t inhibited California progressive sanctimony, however. The letter from the CEO in California’s high-speed-rail business plan starts with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Inspirational, but Mandela was completing a multigenerational struggle to overturn apartheid, not building a train.
We know what blanket infrastructure spending looks like. When the federal government is just throwing money at the states for projects they don’t really need, there’s not going to be any urgency to spend the money in a way that benefits taxpayers.
Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to point this out. Kasich, Scott, and Walker all won reelection in 2014. Voters didn’t hold it against them that they rejected infrastructure spending.
The context matters too. At least in February 2009, when Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economy was in the doldrums of recession. If you buy the logic of Keynesian stimulus spending, that was the right time to do it. Biden’s infrastructure proposal alone is over two times as expensive as Obama’s entire stimulus package, and the economy is growing already without it.
Republicans shouldn’t be playing around on this issue. If they fear backlash from voters, they should look back at 2010 and see that the conventional wisdom that opposition to infrastructure spending is an automatic vote loser is incorrect. And they should remember that federal infrastructure spending doesn’t live up to the hype.