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Editorial: Bipartisan support needed to improve our nation's infrastructure

Despite calls for bipartisanship in Washington and an end to the political rancor that disgusts so many Americans in the President’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, we’re not holding our breath.

Certainly, President Trump made a point to bring up a few items that both Republicans and Democrats can support. One of those was improving our nation’s infrastructure.

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“Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure. I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill — and I am eager to work with you on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment,” Trump said Tuesday.

“This is not an option. This is a necessity."

There are plenty of reasons to support a significant investment in our country’s infrastructure. Doing so would create living wage jobs for Americans across the country, improve economic growth and decrease congestion on our roadways.

Unfortunately, the president was light on details when he talked about infrastructure Tuesday night. It also wasn’t the first time President Trump has suggested that infrastructure, pardon the pun, might be able to bridge the partisan divide, but talks last night were even skimpier on specifics than before and, thus far, no legitimate legislation has emerged from Congress or the administration to even debate during Trump’s first two years in office.

In 2017, Trump asked Congress to “approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure in the United States — financed through both public and private capital.” However, such legislation never truly emerged. During last year’s State of the Union, he asked lawmakers to produce their own legislation generating at least $1.5 trillion for new infrastructure investment in which “every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with State and local governments and, where appropriate, tapping into private sector investment — to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit."

The White House offered a proposal to commit $200 billion in federal funds offset by budget cuts to spur this investment, but even Trump seemingly walked back the plan, questioning whether it would be effective. No one in Congress ran with the administration’s plan or stepped up with fleshed out legislation of their own.

Any infrastructure plan, even one that includes public-private partnerships, would require significant federal funding behind it, which would require an increase in the gasoline tax.

The gas tax — which provides revenue to the Highway Trust Fund used to pay for highways, bridges and transit — was last increased in 1997, by 4.3 cents to its current level of 18.4 cents per gallon. Because the gas tax hasn’t been adjusted in more than two decades, a significant maintenance funding gap exists — the Congressional Budget Office estimates it to be around $14 billion — and lawmakers have had to shift money from elsewhere in order to cover the gap.

About a year ago, the president seemed to support a 25-cent per gallon hike, phased in over five years, that would generate an additional $375 billion for infrastructure improvements over the next decade. It’s no surprise that anti-tax conservatives strongly opposed the idea, although there is still support among some Republicans in Congress to increase the gas tax if it means more money for infrastructure improvements. Perhaps with gas prices significantly lower than they were a decade ago, there would be more of an appetite among the American public for higher gas taxes.

However, raising the gas tax alone may not be enough. There needs to be a way to account for the increasing numbers of hybrid and electric cars using fewer gallons of gas but still contributing to the wear and tear on infrastructure.

Fixing our infrastructure problem is no easy task, and is one that will require ideas and commitments from our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. We’re glad the president continues to make it a part of his agenda, but are admittedly pessimistic Congress will do any more to address the matter than it has in the past two years or during previous administrations. But who knows, perhaps this will be the year. If so, to borrow from Mr. Trump, it would be a huge bipartisan step. Like the calls for unity in Washington however, we won’t hold our breath.

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