By Dean Franks, senior vice president, congressional relations, &
John Schneidawind, vice president of public affairs, ARTBA

Infrastructure got more attention than usual from four Democratic presidential candidates at a Feb. 16 campaign forum billed as the first-ever to focus on the issue. All agreed the nation needs to invest more to repair aging roads, bridges, and other infrastructure, as well as building modern projects, but they carefully tip-toed around whether to raise the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993 in order to fix them.

Forum participants included former Vice President Joe Biden, businessman Tom Steyer, former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) President Donald Trump and other Democratic presidential candidates were also invited but chose not to take part.

ARTBA was on the steering committee of the nationally televised event at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Besides their on-stage appearances, each of the candidates also met privately with conference sponsors, including ARTBA leaders, to discuss informally their ideas for investing in America’s infrastructure renaissance.

Watch a recording of the event.

“We’re not going to be able to raise the gas tax, we might be able to index it down the line” Biden said on stage, citing opposition from Republicans to raise taxes. Under questioning from two Wall Street Journal editors who moderated the individual sessions with each candidate, Biden leaned heavily on repealing part of the Trump administration tax cuts as the main way to raise money for infrastructure investment.

ARTBA logo outside the event hall at University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Steyer said the federal gas tax is “super politically sensitive.” He added, “What we are definitely going to have to do is raise taxes.” He also prefers to undo the Trump tax cuts.

Buttigieg said he would consider a vehicle miles traveled user fee, provided individual privacy is protected. “We are going to have to graduate from the gas tax because we are going to have to graduate from gas,” he said.

All four candidates said they support more commuter and high-speed rail investment to reduce highway traffic. “I’m not asking for Japanese-level rail, I would settle for Italian level,” Buttigieg said.

Biden said he favors raising the Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) for airport infrastructure investment. Klobuchar said she “would be open” to hiking the PFC.

“Infrastructure is everything, for better or worse,” said Zach Schafer, CEO for United for Infrastructure, which organized the event coalition. But that also reduced the time focused on transportation, as the candidate conversations not only included drinking water, the electric grid and rural broadband, but also stretched into whether natural resources or affordable housing should be considered part of the mix.

ARTBA Leaders

In addition to ARTBA’s role on the steering committee, several of ARTBA’s leaders were in attendance. They included:

  • ARTBA Foundation Chairman Paul Yarossi, director at HNTB Corporation
  • Research & Education Division President Dr. Karen Philbrick, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institution
  • Vice Chairman-at-Large Susan Martinovich, vice president of HNTB’s DOT National Practice
  • Northeastern Region Vice Chairman David Harwood, senior vice president of Terracon
  • Council of State Executives member Ananth Prasad, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association
  • Board member Ozzy Bravo, national program manager at Terracon

In addition to ARTBA, the host committee included the International Union of Operating Engineers; Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO; North America’s Building Trades Unions; Transport Workers Union of America; American Society of Civil Engineers; American Public Transportation Association; American Council of Engineering Companies; Value of Water Campaign; Association of Equipment Manufacturers; Airports Council International-North America; and Build Together.

The Nevada primary is Feb. 22. The South Carolina primary is Feb. 29. Voters in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas.