How President Trump can build infrastructure the Right way

In a stellar State of the Union, President Trump was firmly in control Tuesday evening as he addressed leaders in all three branches of government.

Trump offered specific ideas on immigration, national security, and — for terminally ill patients — an urgent “Right to Try” experimental, possibly life-saving drugs. He also invited Democrats to collaborate with him on multiple issues.

But Trump’s scowling resistance was virtually paralyzed. The Party of No refused to stand and cheer even the fact that black unemployment is at record lows. This reveals just how little liberal Democrats really care about black Americans.

With few exceptions (e.g. “Prices will come down” on pharmaceuticals), Trump was Reaganesque: patriotic, optimistic, and respectful of low taxes, free markets, and limited government. He boldly proposed to give every Cabinet secretary “the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Trump’s signature on the VA Accountability Act empowered Secretary David Shulkin to sack some 1,500 employees who failed America’s veterans.

President Trump’s call to stimulate $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending could add a big-government blemish to a record that is far more conservative than his biggest pro-market fans dared imagine. Luckily, several ideas could bolster this effort’s fiscal responsibility and market friendliness as it addresses legitimate public needs.

• First, fix things at risk of collapse. The American Road and Transportation Builders Association recently identified 54,259 bridges that literally are turning to crumbs. A Utah driver barely escaped death when a chunk of concrete cleaved off an overhead span and smashed through his windshield. “Another six to eight inches,” Mike Peterson told NBC News, “you might not be talking to me today.”

Minneapolis’ 35W Bridge tumbled into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 and wounding 145. Tragedy narrowly was averted last February, when California’s Oroville Dam nearly ruptured, before being patched back together. These clear and present dangers should be eliminated long before Washington even entertains whimsical projects, such as Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s magic train set in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

• Federal money should be block-granted to the states, provided that each renovate the dozen structures likeliest to implode, injure, or kill people. Federal cash should support state priorities that overlap with the Interstate Highway System and other federal properties.

• Wherever possible, federal funds should augment state and private money, via public-private partnerships. Rather than simply sign fat checks, Washington should favor loan guarantees, back stops, and matching funds. President Trump should encourage American companies that repatriate foreign profits to support infrastructure. Why shouldn’t Apple adopt a bridge or two?

• Washington should speed approvals and encourage states to do likewise. “We built the Empire State Building in just 1 year,” Trump observed. “Is it not a disgrace that it can now take 10 years just to get a permit approved for a simple road?”

Proposals deserve green or red lights within two years, or even one. Science-based environmental reviews should weigh real threats, not hallucinate about rare species that someday might emerge in habitat from which it has been absent for decades, or longer.

• Incentives matter, as former governor Pete Wilson (R – California) proved after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake flattened the Santa Monica Freeway in West L.A. “Each contract included an incentive — if the work was late, we charged a fine, and if it was completed early, we paid a bonus,” Wilson later testified before Congress. Thanks also to accelerated permits and suspended regulations, this thoroughfare re-opened 74 days ahead of schedule. The contractor collected a $14.5 million bonus for this much-welcome speeding.

• Davis-Bacon reform would help. Avoiding union-driven prevailing wages would lower costs and open the labor market to younger workers and — perfect for Trump — apprentices.

These steps would revitalize U.S. infrastructure in a way that would limit federal involvement in a typically statist endeavor. “And,” as President Trump promised, “we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”

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