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EDITORIAL

Infrastructure Week can’t be a punch line anymore

Caution tape is seen near a giant sinkhole caused by a broken 24-inch water main that displaced 75 local residents and caused extensive street flooding in Los Angeles, Dec. 22, 2018.
Caution tape is seen near a giant sinkhole caused by a broken 24-inch water main that displaced 75 local residents and caused extensive street flooding in Los Angeles, Dec. 22, 2018. (Mark RALSTON /AFP/Getty Images)

Infrastructure Week doesn’t have to be a punch line.

But for the Trump White House, a sweeping new infrastructure plan is notoriously always just around the corner. The administration’s long-deferred plan to fix America’s roads, bridges, and airports has become a running joke in Washington, emblematic of the administration’s bumbling approach to governing.

True to form, Trump again called attention to infrastructure in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, suggesting it was a possible area for bipartisan agreement with the new Democratic Congress: “I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future,” he said. “This is not an option. This is a necessity.”

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What’s a necessity is for Trump to throw his public support behind a specific plan, and then sell it to his fellow Republicans.

Here’s why: Democrats control only the House of Representatives, and the hard part of an infrastructure plan — paying for it — will be a heavy lift in the Republican-held Senate until the president puts his weight squarely behind it.

Trump has left his party guessing on just what he’ll support. He reportedly expressed support for raising the gas tax — in private. His administration backed expanded tolling — but didn’t put any political capital behind the proposal.

Of course, all of those strategies are unpopular: Nobody likes paying more. And many Republicans have taken no-tax pledges. But experience shows that few of them have the spine to stand up to Trump, a trait the president can use to the country’s advantage by demanding they fall in line behind a robust infrastructure spending plan.

Trump hinted that he’d favor a 25-cent boost to the gas tax, which supports federal highway and transit funding, more than doubling it from the current 18.4 cents a gallon and allowing for a large increase in infrastructure investment. That’s in line with the US Chamber of Commerce’s recommendations. In principle, there’s broad support for boosting gas taxes: AAA, the trucking lobby, environmental groups, and labor unions all support some form of an increase.

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Right now, gas prices are in the cellar, thanks to relatively low oil prices. That would cushion the impact of a tax hike, making it as good a time as any to act.

Trump wants accomplishments to run on in 2020, and his flailing effort to build a border wall is going nowhere fast. A big infusion of infrastructure spending could be a real win for the country, but to make it happen the president needs to move it to the top of his priority list — now.