- - Sunday, February 2, 2020

Democrats are good at hitting a nerve — expensive health care, student debt and the like — and cooking up expensive schemes that hardly fix those problems but do profoundly extend the reach of government into business decisions and the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants us to believe he is a moderate alternative to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and the mainstream media constantly chants that he is — but his $1 trillion infrastructure plan is hardly enough and demonstrates he’s a socialist, too.  

Still the Trump administration and campaign had better take note. Democrats seized control of the House and narrowed the Republican majority in the Senate by promising to work for solutions to middle class problems. Few of those confront voters everyday with the poignancy of nerve-racking commutes, flight delays, and crowded trains and airports.

The president may be tied down by impeachment, but his Transportation secretary has not tabled a credible plan that challenges Democrats to act, and without concrete proposals on transportation and other middle class issues, his justification for a second term is seriously impaired.

Federal and state governments spend about $450 billion a year on roads, mass transit, waterways and the like, and at least another $200 billion is needed to fully repair and expand decayed and crowded facilities, address climate-change abatement and buildout 5G in underserved areas.

Congestion is costing the U.S. economy at least $400 billion a year, and outdated connectivity could hold back growth for many small towns and rural areas.

Climate change is increasing the incidence of violent storms and flooding, and Miami, New Orleans and other communities need costly mitigation projects to remain viable.

To his credit Mr. Buttigieg’s infrastructure proposal identifies these challenges, but his prescriptions are chock full of unnecessary intrusions into free markets.

He wants to create a new entitlement by cutting in half water bills in many communities.

He wants to further steer infrastructure spending and employment in favor of African-American and Latino communities, increase community development grants, retrain workers to move them from the oil and gas industries to sustainable energy and transportation, subsidize charging stations for electric vehicles and create 6 million union jobs.

The Davis-Bacon Act requires excessively high union wages and cumbersome work rules on federal-sponsored transportation projects. Requiring union and non-union contractors to compete on an equal basis and removing other unnecessary regulatory burdens could lower costs by about 20 percent.

With only 6 percent of private sector employees now represented by unions, it is clear that Buttigieg wants to impose on workers something they have already rejected through their private decisions.

Last spring, congressional Democrats proposed a $2 trillion, multiyear package. That’s more in line with what the country needs but paying for it all is the puzzle.

The federal gas tax was last adjusted in 1993 and bringing it in line with inflation — along with increased user fees for mass transit, bicycles and recreational vehicles, which also benefit from the Federal Highway Trust Fund — could raise $50 billion a year.

Democrats won’t consider those without repealing many benefits for high-income households in the 2017 tax cut.

In any case, the gas tax will have to be replaced as electric vehicles come on line and on that score Mr. Buttigieg has it right. The roads should be paid for by those who use them, and GPS technology would permit a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax (VMT).

That raises privacy considerations but so does Google Maps and our cellphones — safeguards can be implemented.

Instead of government engineering progress from the top down, let markets work.

As electric cars arrive, charging stations will be built the same way gas stations were — by entrepreneurs looking for business opportunities.

The Trump administration is already building out a comprehensive system of apprenticeship and training programs. There is no need for one solely focused on workers leaving the oil and gas sector as we decarbonize.

A casual look at any road project indicates minorities are well represented, and the Army Corps of Engineers and states already have a long backlog of projects needing funding.

It would be best to replace the gas tax with a VMT, impose more robust competition to lower cost and take the rest of what is needed from general tax revenues. The additional tax receipts on $400 billion in GDP would likely replace a good deal what is added to infrastructure spending from general revenues.

• Peter Morici, @pmorici1, is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. 

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