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On One Thing The Candidates Agree: Infrastructure Needs Work

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Like a third-world country - that's how Donald Trump has often described America's airports, roads and other infrastructure. Hillary Clinton doesn't describe it in those terms, but this is actually one of the rare instances in this heated presidential election where the two candidates actually have some common ground - the need to repair the nation's infrastructure. Both Trump and Clinton proposed spending billions on the cause. As part of our election project, What's The Issue, NPR's Brian Naylor joins us to talk about what they have in mind.

Good morning.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us, first, a sense of the need.

NAYLOR: OK, so the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a report card every few years on the state of the infrastructure. And the last report card gave the infrastructure a D-plus - barely passing. They said roads got a D, dams a D, aviation a D, bridges a C-plus. But to adequately repair all of these decrepit systems, it says an investment of $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020. Now, let me just toss out that these are engineers. They might have a little of a vested interest in all that spending, but it's widely agreed that there is a lot that needs to be done.

MONTAGNE: All right. So the candidates - I'll let you pick who to start with.

NAYLOR: All right, well, let's start with Hillary Clinton - alphabetical order. She's proposed spending about a half-trillion dollars on an infrastructure program, about half of that in direct taxpayer-funded money. Here she is at a North Carolina rally last week.

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HILLARY CLINTON: Good jobs that pay good wages are at stake. Investing in our roads and our bridges and our water systems and all the work that needs to be done in our country - that really matters. And we can put millions of people to work and have a more competitive economy. That's why we've proposed a very big jobs program.

MONTAGNE: The effort, then, as we're just hearing Hillary Clinton present it, is a jobs program.

NAYLOR: Yeah, it is, but it's also more than that. I mean, she has, actually, a pretty detailed program. She wants to ensure that all Americans have broadband Internet access, modernize the dams and the wastewater systems, invest in building world-class airports, modernizing the air traffic control system, fixing public transit. And she says she would present a plan to do all of this to Congress in the first 100 days of her administration.

MONTAGNE: And in those hundred days, where does she propose to get the money to pay for all of that?

NAYLOR: OK, so - so get out your notepads.

MONTAGNE: All right, got it.

NAYLOR: OK - because it's a lot of numbers here. So $250 billion would be direct investment paid for by what she calls business tax reform. So that would come from Congress, and that's where Congress would get the money. It means taxing businesses on the profits that they keep overseas. The other $25 billion would be part of an infrastructure bank that Congress would fund.

And that money would be used to guarantee loans, which she says would leverage an additional $225 billion in investments. So that's how you get up to half a trillion. The biggest caveat is that, you know, she's proposed these ideas for paying for them, but so did the Obama administration, and they went nowhere in Congress.

MONTAGNE: Donald Trump, also, is proposing an infrastructure bill he hopes to bring to Congress in his first hundred days.

NAYLOR: Right. Here's what he said during a speech recently in Pennsylvania.

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DONALD TRUMP: The American Infrastructure Act leverages public-private partnerships and private investments through tax incentives to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over the next 10 years. Our infrastructure is in such trouble.

NAYLOR: So, Renee, it's not exactly clear how these public-private partnerships would work or what kind of tax incentives he would propose. But he does say it would add up to a trillion dollars in spending over 10 years. That's about double what Clinton has proposed.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking about the infrastructure plans of the two presidential candidates, but I gather there are a lot of local initiatives on the ballots dealing with just that.

NAYLOR: That's right. There's a lot of frustration, you know, at the local level because Congress hasn't been able to do much more than keep up with the status quo. So officials - local officials, state officials - are taking things into their own hands. According to the Eno Center, which is a transportation think tank, there will be some kind of an infrastructure, transportation issue on the ballot in 400 communities on Election Day.

Most of them have to do with raising money for infrastructure programs - $450 billion worth - everything from seaports to airports to transit programs. So in LA, for example, there's an issue as to whether to raise the sales tax by half a cent to pay for $120 billion in rails, roads and transit. Seattle and Atlanta have transit measures. So one way or the other, voters are going to be making a lot of infrastructure-related decisions on November 8.

MONTAGNE: Brian, thanks very much.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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