PD Editorial: Infrastructure deal is a long way from finish line

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It would be excellent if President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer could agree upon an ambitious $2 trillion program to repair and improve the nation’s highways, bridges, ports and transit systems. The country needs it. California needs it. Sonoma County needs it.

But some political bridges will need to be built before any concrete can be poured.

Trump campaigned for the presidency as a builder and a businessman, promising in 2016 that “we’re going to do double, triple, quadruple what Eisenhower did” with the creation of the interstate freeway system. In his State of the Union address this year, he called for a “great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure.” He added, “This is not an option. This is a necessity.”

Democrats also favor a big increase in public works spending, both to promote economic development and to create construction jobs. Bipartisan support for the concept of an infrastructure plan kindles hope: Wouldn’t it be great if the White House and Congress could actually work together on something important?

Such hopes dimmed soon after Pelosi and Schumer announced Tuesday that Trump had agreed to the $2 trillion figure. That was the easy part. They put off the difficult question: Where does the money come from?

Schumer said that Democrats won’t consider raising the federal gas tax to pay for an infrastructure plan unless Republicans agree to roll back some of the tax cuts included in their 2017 tax overhaul.

Republicans, including some members of Trump’s Cabinet, believe the government can pay for an infrastructure program without increasing the federal gas tax, which stands at 18.4 cents per gallon and hasn’t been increased since 1993. They argue that money for roads, bridges and other projects would become available if environmental laws and regulations were relaxed.

Democrats won’t roll back environmental protections, at least not as far as Republicans want. And Republicans aren’t likely to support a gas tax increase. The makings of an impasse have already appeared.

It was telling that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasn’t invited to the infrastructure confab even though the Senate would have to approve the deal, too.

As prospects of a bipartisan consensus prove illusory, the infrastructure agenda grows to include wastewater treatment plants, green energy investments, rural broadband upgrades, improvements to the electrical grid, veterans’ hospitals and more. All are worthy projects, but without the money to pay for them, the list might as well be scribbled in crayon and sent off to Santa Claus.

A failure to address the nation’s infrastructure needs would be yet another indictment of the political system in Washington. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the United States’ infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus. Thirteen of the nation’s 25 most heavily traveled structurally deficient bridges are in California, the society reports, and poor roads cost the average California driver $843 a year. Meanwhile, Sonoma County’s roads are the worst in the nine-county Bay Area, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The needs are urgent. The remedies are obvious. An infrastructure plan offers the Trump administration and Congress their best opportunity to demonstrate a capacity to act. It would be nice if they surprised everyone this once and actually cut a deal, but don’t hold your breath.

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