Long lines at the Atlanta airport. Traffic-clogged interstate highways. New demands for funding for transit-oriented developments and questions about the Beltline’s future.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg came face to face with some of metro Atlanta’s most pressing infrastructure issues Friday as he visited the city to promote President Joe Biden’s suddenly scaled-back $1.7 trillion proposal to overhaul everything from highways and mass transit to water and sewer pipes to broadband internet service.

The White House is eager to win Republican support for the sweeping measure, and it announced a cut of roughly $500 billion from the proposal as Buttigieg was meeting with senior Georgia Democrats in downtown Atlanta.

Though liberals worry the Biden administration could be giving up too much to satisfy skeptical Republicans, Buttigieg sounded a cautiously optimistic note that the negotiations were making headway in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Well, on the one hand we’ve made a significant move. On the other hand, the president is firmly committed to the major priorities as planned, and that was reflected in the counter that we made,” he said.

“So what you see here is an investment that will continue to represent a major, historic, generational investment,” Buttigieg said, “but one that we hope is one step closer to something that could earn support across the aisle.”

The development came at the tail end of Buttigieg’s visit, which offered him a close-up look at the transportation challenges that have long vexed Atlantans.

He started his trip with a slog through the muddy underbelly of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where a team of drillers is slowly expanding a new Plane Train tunnel beneath the granite to help speed passengers between busy terminals.

Next, he hopped on MARTA for the short trip to East Point, joining U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock on a tour of transit-oriented development. He ended the day at the headquarters of the Beltline, the ribbon of trails surrounding Atlanta where transit advocates hope to leverage federal funding to complete a $2.5 billion light-rail loop.

Biden’s plan to remake the nation’s infrastructure is no easy sell in Georgia. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in May found that while a slim majority of voters support the initiative, Georgians are split on whether to levy higher taxes to finance the overhaul.

The plan extends far beyond the traditional definition of “infrastructure” to include a range of other projects. It would rehab the nation’s electrical grid; invest in renewable energy; make homes and commercial buildings more energy-efficient; and upgrade schools, veterans’ hospitals and child care facilities.

And it includes $20 billion that U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams sought to “reconnect neighborhoods” decimated by highway construction. That could benefit Atlanta neighborhoods bisected by the Downtown Connector and I-20.

“I’m on the visionary side,” said Williams, who joined Buttigieg on the tour. “I’m willing to negotiate on how we get there to cover it all, but I want to start with a big, bold and visionary plan to reconnect communities here.”

How to pay

She and other supporters say Biden understands that the modern economy needs broad investment beyond traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges. At a forum Thursday on Biden’s plan sponsored by the Volcker Alliance think tank, Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, likened broadband internet to highway construction in the 1950s.

“This is a 21st century plan for 21st century problems,” Morial said. “The president is being bold and imaginative and is meeting the moment we’re in.”

Republicans have panned the proposal as Big Government run amok. Senate Republicans have released a $568 billion plan focused on traditional infrastructure. The House Republican plan is even smaller, at $400 billion.

“Unfortunately, less than 6% (of Biden’s plan) goes to what we would all consider to be infrastructure,” said U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, a Republican who is considering running against Warnock in 2022. “That’s roads and bridges and airports and seaports. The rest is nothing more than a progressive wish list.”

Another sticking point among critics is whether to pay for infrastructure improvements by hiking taxes on corporations or finding other means to finance the plans. Robert Poole, a transportation expert at the libertarian Reason Foundation, has called for a mix of long-term borrowing, private investment and user fees such as tolls.

“We should be working toward a future in which people pay their roadway bills in a similar way that they pay their electricity bill,” Poole said.

Congress is expected to take up Biden’s plan this summer. The president is angling for a bipartisan agreement, although there’s a narrow pathway for Democrats to pursue without one.

“This is exactly why the president’s American Jobs Plan is so important. It’s responding to the needs that we have. But it’s not just patching up or restoring or improving what we’ve had all along,” Buttigieg said, using the administration’s name for the infrastructure plan. “It’s also a vision for the future.”

Carter, the Georgia Republican lawmaker, was less optimistic.

“In his first 100 days, everything he’s done has been partisan,” Carter said of Biden. “He’s brought no bipartisanship to Congress at all.”

Biden transportation plan

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes about $621 billion for transportation improvements. Highlights include:

  • $174 billion to boost electric vehicle manufacturing.
  • $115 billion for bridge, highway and road repairs.
  • $85 billion for transit rehabilitation and expansion.
  • $80 billion for Amtrak’s repair backlog and other passenger and freight rail improvements.
  • $50 billion to reinforce roads and other infrastructure against the effects of climate disasters.
  • $25 billion for airport improvements.
  • $20 billion for road safety improvements.
  • $20 billion to reconnect neighborhoods divided by highways built in the past.
  • $17 billion for waterways, ports and ferries.

SOURCE: Biden administration

Taxes and the president’s plans

President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is committed to following these proposals and explaining how they could transform government services and how they will affect Georgians. The cost and how to pay for the programs have ignited a debate about taxes. Biden’s plan calls for increased taxes on corporations and on the wealthiest 1% of Americans.

Those who support the tax increases say corporations and the wealthy should pay more. They maintain that tax policies over the past couple of decades have favored companies and the wealthy, and that less wealthy Americans pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes.

Those who oppose increasing taxes point out that the wealthiest Americans pay a large share of the taxes the Internal Revenue Service collects. According to the Tax Foundation, the top 1% of earners pay more than one-third of income taxes.

The AJC will report on all sides of this debate and will work to keep you informed about the costs, benefits and risks. We want to answer your questions and hear from you about what you’d like to know about these proposals. Email Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. at Leroy.Chapman@ajc.com.