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Trump's missing ingredient

Two years ago, Gov. Larry Hogan took action that helps his popularity with voters enormously — he reduced tolls on Maryland's highways and bridges. This week, it appears that President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, is headed in the opposite direction, with an infrastructure plan that will force states to rely more heavily on tolls and fees to accommodate privatization not only of roads and bridges but other public infrastructure such as airports and water systems. And he's already endorsed controversial federal reform that takes a similar approach — to help modernize the nation's air traffic control system by putting it in the hands of a private, non-profit entity regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

None of the above is necessarily a terrible idea, but each is problematic, particularly privatizing air traffic control which has been discussed for years and about which many Democrats and even some Republicans have voiced objections. Here's the crux of the problem: Offering tax incentives to lure private investment or provide some modest additional federal spending in targeted communities is simply not going to get the job done. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already warned that any additional federal dollars spent on infrastructure will have to come from off-setting cutbacks elsewhere in the budget, so the opportunities are quite limited.

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Here's what Mr. Trump ought to endorse instead when he formally announces his infrastructure proposal in Cincinnati tomorrow afternoon: A fiscally responsible, bipartisan plan to not only spend the trillion dollars-plus the United States needs to raise its failing systems (rated a D-plus by the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers' report card) but also to reduce carbon emissions, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and make the nation's transportation systems considerably safer and less congested. Such a measure could help the president secure a much-needed win in Congress and boost his standing with voters enormously while demonstrating a certain amount of political courage and statesmanship.

And all that really requires President Trump to do is peg the nation's motor fuel tax to the rate of inflation. In other words, he needs to concede that you can't run a 21st century society on transportation systems financed by a 1993 tax rate. Instead of 18.4 cents per gallon, it ought to be gradually adjusted to something in the neighborhood of 31.5 cents (assuming one follows the Consumer Price Index) and left to rise further with inflation. That's not really raising taxes so much as putting the gas tax in the same category as many other inflation-sensitive assessments Americans pay, from property to income taxes. It's what a growing number of states are already doing.

Yes, some Republicans will hate it and point out the regressive nature of the gas tax (meaning lower income households end up paying a higher percentage of their income than the wealthy), but tolls are arguably worse. Not only do they require motorists to pay out of pocket (as opposed to rolling the cost into the overall price of fuel at the pump), but, as Governor Hogan discovered, certain communities are hit much harder than others. Just ask residents of Havre de Grace or Kent Island who, despite Mr. Hogan's cuts, still face substantial tolls at the John F. Kennedy Highway ($2.80 for commuters with E-ZPass) or Chesapeake Bay Bridge ($1.40 for the same) to get to work each day. That's far more than a measly $2 extra for a weekly fill-up.

That's not to suggest there isn't a place for private investment in infrastructure. In Maryland, renovated rest stops along Interstate 95 and upgrades at the Port of Baltimore are the result of private-public partnerships. But not every project is suitable. Government can borrow money more cheaply than the private sector, and organizations like the Maryland Transportation Authority don't need to turn a profit like a private company must. Rural communities with lower traffic volumes tend to be poor candidates for such investments. If the FAA traffic control system goes private, what guarantee do those same communities have that they won't be bypassed in the name of cost-savings?

For President Trump, the best part might be that it helps offset his disastrous choice to withdraw from the Paris climate accords without actually reversing himself, as a higher gas tax encourages conservation and energy efficiency. And wouldn't it be nice to pose at a bill-signing with all those political opponents like Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer who are now salivating over his 36 percent voter approval rating? Democrats urged Mr. Trump to take up infrastructure as his first initiative before he even took office. Privatization alone won't bring them to the table; overdue public spending on the nation's failing highways, bridges and other assets —and the staggering number of jobs those construction projects would create — most assuredly will.

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