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Fixing America's Highways: It Should Have Been Easy
ONC Editorial

Oct 18, 2023

Remember the massive “bipartisan” infrastructure law passed a few years ago? It’s worthwhile to reflect: how did such a bipartisan infrastructure law become so partisan? (The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author, Zhengmao Sheng, whose information can be found below.)

Democrats and Republicans disagree on many issues; even where they can reach some basic consensus, the two parties usually have less than uniform agendas. Yet, we find considerable bipartisan support behind the idea of fixing America’s highways. 

According to the Senate Republican Policy Committee (RPC), Democrats and Republicans both acknowledge that “the U.S. faces significant challenges in water and transportation infrastructure.” When the RPC writes how “infrastructure is a fundamental component of America’s economy and our ability to move people and good[s],” it clearly has highways in mind, and the statement sounds almost Democratic.

So why was the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, in the White House’s words a “once-in-a-generation investment” that included a devotion of some $350 billion to fixing American highways, still incredibly partisan? It narrowly survived the House 221-201, with the endorsement of only two Republicans.

The Senate did express somewhat greater bipartisan sentiments with a 69-30 vote, but it was still far from a consensus. By September 2021, CNN even went as far as to call supporting this bill “far more of a liability” for House Republicans, many of whom well understood the importance of good public roads. What went wrong? And what can we learn for the future?

Well, without succumbing to the narrative of “Democrats good, Republicans bad,” we may identify two points of contention: the scope of federal infrastructure and that of an infrastructure bill. 

The first is explored by the Republicans’ six “infrastructure principles,” one of which focuses on “ensuring state flexibility.” They argue that states have unique and disparate priorities which top-down mandates often overlook. States should be empowered to make their own decisions with limited federal involvement. (Even so, Republican politicians concede that federal support has been customary in water and transportation projects, including highway management.) 

Furthermore, the Highway Trust Fund (HTF), one primary federal tool in funding state and local roadways, is required by law to only provide for new construction and not routine operations, which are left to state and local authorities. In fact, House Republicans are explicitly concerned with improving the HTF’s long-term sustainability as one of their infrastructure principles. As long as Democrats sought to fix U.S. highways within the existing administrative framework — which they did — there should not have been much controversy.

This brought me to the conclusion that much of the infrastructure-related partisanship we witnessed in 2021 and 2022 was the result of how the infrastructure bill was designed. This largely centered around what Republicans called “double-dipping” — Democrats trying to appropriate more funds for programs which the Republicans did not agree to in bipartisan negotiations. 

Some examples include an additional $10 billion to public transit or supplementary grants to broadband coverage and electric vehicles. These well-intended but opportunistic maneuvers did not cost us the bill in 2021, but could have reduced Republican willingness to cooperate on future infrastructure policies. The best way to avoid partisanship on infrastructure is to start small, identify common ground and refrain from getting ahead of oneself. After all, many genuinely bipartisan steps, no matter how modest, would likely go much farther than one single, unfollowed stride.

Zhengmao Sheng graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in History and Economics and minors in Legal Studies and Politics. He volunteered at The Right to Immigration Institute as an undergraduate and enjoys both reading and hiking. He is an Infrastructure Policy intern at Our National Conversation.


Biden’s Broken Promise on Infrastructure Double Dipping. Senate Republican Policy Committee, 5 Oct. 2021.

Fox, Lauren, and Melanie Zanona. “GOP pressure to block bipartisan infrastructure bill builds in the House.” CNN News, 8 Sep. 2021.

H.R. 3684 - Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Senate Republican Policy Committee, 3 Aug. 2021.

H.R. 3684 - Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. U.S. Congress, updated 15 Nov. 2021.

Republican Infrastructure Principles. U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure,

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