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Transportation spending bill gets a modest White House boost; it needs a much bigger one

America's neglected interstate highways are currently rated a "D" by the American Society of Civil Engineers who have recommended raising the federal motor fuel tax.
America's neglected interstate highways are currently rated a "D" by the American Society of Civil Engineers who have recommended raising the federal motor fuel tax. (UDOT)

Amid all the corrosive hate and heart-tugging tragedy of the last two weeks, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account actually produced at least one constructive idea with broad appeal that deserves more attention. Perhaps exhausted from his Baltimore bashing and assault on House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, the president on July 30 signaled his support for a $287 billion highway spending bill now pending in the U.S. Senate. Most amazingly, the bipartisan legislation actually recognizes climate change and promotes infrastructure to accommodate electric, hydrogen and natural gas vehicles. That alone makes Mr. Trump’s support notable.

“Senate is working hard on America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act. Will have BIG IMPACT on our highways and roads all across our Nation,” President Trump tweeted. “Interest strong from Republicans and Democrats. Do I hear the beautiful word, BIPARTISAN? Get it done. I am with you!”

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Of course before anyone gets too excited about the U.S. finally facing up to its infrastructure problems, including a congested highway network in disrepair that is currently graded a "D" by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it should be noted that the measure in question is a five-year authorization, not an appropriation. That means Congress is debating exactly how future revenues should be spent, not giving permission for any money to change hands. It’s an important first step but not the critical one given that the federal Highway Trust Fund is disastrously underfunded.

The Senate bill has support the way that Christmas lists have broad support — until it’s time to come up with the money to pay for all those gifts. Who doesn’t want federal dollars used on roads needed to sustain the economy by making sure goods can be delivered and people can get to jobs? Where President Trump and the Congress need to turn their attention is how to replenish the overdrawn trust fund. And there’s one obvious answer: They need to raise the federal gas tax that hasn’t been touched since Bill Clinton occupied the Oval Office. It’s ridiculous to think that 1992 era fuel taxes (18.4 cents on gasoline and 24.4 cents on diesel) can support the nation’s transportation needs. In 1992, a gallon of unleaded cost about $1.13. Today, the U.S. average is more like $2.70.

Oh, sure, Congress could backfill the shortfall from the general fund. They’ve done it before. But in case Americans haven’t noticed, the federal government is generating a growing deficit that’s on pace to reach $1 trillion this year. Spend more on highways without paying for it and you’re just adding to the debt. The gas tax is the best option moving forward. That’s why trucking companies, a group especially hit hard by such a tax, are actually lobbying for the increase. It’s an elegant solution as the more you drive and the larger and more gas-guzzling the vehicle you choose to operate, the more you pay. It’s a user fee not unlike bridge and tunnel tolls but on a much larger scale. Aside from the challenge of alternative fueled vehicles like electric cars (which still represent just a tiny fraction of motorists) it’s by far the fairest way to go.

The problem is it’s become a tough vote. Even Maryland’s Sen. Ben Cardin, one of the transportation bill’s four co-sponsors, hasn’t committed to supporting a gas tax increase. Small wonder. Republicans hold the majority in the Senate. Why should Democrats stick their necks out? They’ll just be pilloried by Republicans for seeking to raise taxes. The best way to break that deadlock would be for President Trump to weigh in. Oh, he talks the talk on infrastructure spending, throwing out numbers like $2 trillion or endorsing public-private partnerships. But, as on most issues of consequence, he is notoriously unreliable when hard choices have to be made.

Congress has time. The current transportation authorization doesn’t expire until Sept. 30 of next year. But who wants to take that vote in an election year? Here’s a better plan. This fall, President Trump needs to commit his party to raising the gas tax by a dime or more, perhaps even tying the tax to inflation in future years. Such a politically courageous act will earn plaudits from business groups. It will generate thousands of jobs in the construction industry. And it will demonstrate that he really can lead on a bipartisan fashion, not just give the exercise a few tweets. It’s also a great way to change the topic from racism, trade wars, domestic terrorism and the like, all issues where he is floundering. It might even make the incumbent look statesmanlike, not a bad look for someone whose job approval numbers still hover in the low-40s.

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