COLUMBUS (WCMH) — For the first time since taking office, President Joe Biden met with the “big four” of Congressional leadership Wednesday morning – Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell.
On the agenda?
“We’re going to see whether we can reach some consensus on a compromise on moving forward,” Biden said. “We’re going to talk a lot about infrastructure today to see if there’s any way we can reach a compromise that gets the peoples’ work done and is within the bounds of everyone agreeing.”
The President has proposed the American Jobs Plan, an infrastructure package worth more than $2 trillion which he, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other key Democrats have spent the better part of a month campaigning for.
“It’s going to put millions of people to work,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) during a recent stop in Columbus. “There’s still millions of people out of work. The infrastructure bill is going to put people back to work in good-paying, often union jobs. It’s going to make our public transit system work better. It’s not just highways and bridges and water and sewer systems. That’s essential and that’s important but it’s also education, it’s also housing, it’s also broadband.”
In fact, some Republicans have said the plan is too far reaching in what infrastructure is as a concept. Instead, they have proposed a smaller package worth just shy of $600 billion targeted at roads, bridges, ports, and rail.
“If the White House is going to work with us, this is a deal we can do,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said during a recent appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press. “Infrastructure has always been bipartisan. Only about 20 percent of the jobs bill that the president has proposed goes to real infrastructure. We want to roll up our sleeves and get to work and help to make America’s economy more competitive, not by raising taxes, but by doing smart things in terms of expanding our infrastructure.”
“A lot of the infrastructure is aging,” said Craig Hebebrand, president of the Ohio Council of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). “The stuff that was built in the interstate era, that era after World War 2, that stuff’s all approaching 70 years of age, so it’s at the point where it needs replaced or it needs major rehabilitation. We’ve got a lot of infrastructure. You look at the amount of roads and bridges we have because we’re at that crossroads of the nation and we have all that economic activity moving back and forth, we have a pretty robust system.”
“In our rural parts of the state, we still have citizens of Ohio who… their well is not good, they can’t get good water, they can’t get water in, they’re literally carrying water in once a week. That’s got to change,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
The infrastructure system isn’t just aging; it’s also taking on more stress than it was ever intended to.
A good example of that is Alum Creek Drive, just south of the I-270 loop.
“This roadway carries about 40,000 vehicles a day and 25 percent of those vehicles are heavy trucks, semis, and that’s a result of just how busy the Rickenbacher International Airport is and also the warehouses and distribution centers that we have along these corridors,” said Franklin County Engineer Cornell Robertson.
The corridor is only expected to get busier, with projections showing additional warehouses, creating twice as many jobs over the next 20 years.
Robertson said there’s a plan to add an additional lane in both directions to help ease congestion and relieve stress on the bridge.
“We expect a project of that magnitude will be about $52 million all together,” Robertson said. “We’re hoping the stimulus plan that President Biden is putting together will have a good bit of money in it, and we’re very excited for that possibility. We have many areas we can put it to use, for both roadways and bridges, all the way down to the smaller and more lightly traveled, residential streets.”
The ASCE gave Ohio its highest grade, a B, for its rail system. The state’s lowest grades were D’s for levees, roads, and transit.
“We think transit and mobility are the great equalizers of the 21st century and if folks can access better-paying jobs and provide for their families, we think that’s a huge difference maker,” said Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.
Congress will not only have to debate the size of the infrastructure plan, but how it would be paid for. After raising the state gas tax in 2019, some believe it’s time for the federal gas tax to increase as well.
“The federal gas tax hasn’t increased in almost a quarter of a century and it’s at a fixed rate, so it’s no longer buying as much infrastructure as it did when it was implemented,” Hebebrand said.
“The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents a gallon, last increased 28 years ago in 1993, so that’s kind of like having a career and never having a cost of living raise and trying to raise a family,” Robertson said. “I’m not for undue taxes. However, governments simply have to have revenue to operate from, to maintain our roads and bridges.”
Others believe the funding should come from a variety of areas, some new.
“I think the way to go is to depend on user fees, as we always have, and about $200 billion will come in over the next five years through the Highway Trust Fund alone, but also through the government being able to borrow at lower rates,” Portman said. “As we’re moving to more and more electric cars and hybrids, and I’m a hybrid driver, myself, my hybrid truck should pay something to use, you know, roads and bridges. So, we should put something in there, the Vehicle Miles Traveled idea on electric cars or some sort of a fee. It makes a lot of sense to make sure there’s a level playing field and there’s fairness there. There are ways to get there.”
But until a funding mechanism or investment is secured, some projects will remain on the backburner… if they’re even proposed at all.
“Predictable, sustainable funding is really important because these projects aren’t something that happen overnight,” Hebebrand said. “They take time to plan and execute, so these programs need to have the ability to project projects 10 years down the road.”