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Trump is all bark, no bite on repairing crumbling roads and bridges

“We can go bigger than that."

That was President Trump’s reply to Rep. Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDemocrats express concerns about IRS readiness for next year's filing season On The Money: Kudlow confident that Trump can 'round up' Senate GOP behind coronavirus relief deal | US deficit spikes to record .1T Top Democrat: Tax credit expansions must be in next coronavirus relief package MORE (D-Mass.) chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who had asked for Trump’s support for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package.

That’s quite a boast, even coming from the “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” president. Donald Trump is a talkative, off-the-cuff commander in chief, often quoteworthy, and that remark is still a Grade-A Trump boast. But to be honest, it would be great if he would actually follow up on this grandiose infrastructure claim.

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The need to pump serious money into public infrastructure projects is both an important story and an old one. America’s infrastructure gets bad grades from public engineers — the last one, in 2017, was a D+. Frightening examples of highways and bridges in disrepair are local news staples. Threats to safety aside, unreliable infrastructure is a competitive disadvantage that costs the economy billions in lost productivity each year. 

As it is it’s hazardous, inefficient, expensive and perennially underfunded.

Yet, Congress, which is always quick to remind everyone just who holds the purse strings in Washington, never manages to get big things done about it. No, it hasn’t abandoned its funding responsibilities. It robs Peter to pay Paul to keep the Highway Trust Fund just barely solvent and occasionally passes bills that last more than a year, like the $305 billion the 114th Congress allocated in 2015.

But that was Neosporin and a Band-Aid while American infrastructure needs triage. The Civil Engineers report says we need to increase investment by a percentage point of our GDP to close our funding gaps. 

So can Trump and a divided Congress defy the odds, surprise America and get us to a dollar amount anywhere near there?

The president consistently talks the talk. “We can go bigger than that” is remarkably similar to the casual one-upsmanship that accompanied the infrastructure proposal he made during the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFive takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Trump, Biden tangle over Wall Street ties, fundraising The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump, Biden face off for last time on the debate stage MORE said she’d put $275 billion down for infrastructure, and so, not long after Trump effectively doubled it with his own proposal of $500 billion. Then he said $1 trillion. Then he got elected — and we haven’t seen any of that money yet.

So now is good a time as any for him to walk the walk.

Rebuilding America is one of the very few opportunities for bipartisan collaboration. Voter attitudes, as measured by the bipartisan polling duo of Mark Mellman and Bill McInturff, show overwhelming support for this kind of federal project. What’s more, the Mellman-McInturff poll found deep-seated support for “Buy America” domestic procurement policies attached to federal infrastructure spending.

Such policies, designed to support domestic job creation and local economic growth, are a sturdy, popular argument, which is why Trump has made grandiose boasts about his own “buy America” efforts. He even had a splashy visit to a Wisconsin factory in 2017 to unveil his “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which was supposed to bring federal spending into strict compliance with such rules already on the books. But it didn’t really go anywhere — the compliance reports it was to produce have never publicly materialized. Nor has his promise to ensure new energy pipelines are made with American iron and steel.

They’re just more examples of lots of talk, and little game.

Trump should join with Congress and put the money for infrastructure where his mouth is. Everyone wants it to happen. Bridges and water pipes don’t repair themselves, but they do get more expensive to replace over time. We shouldn’t have to wait for another “infrastructure week,” the next Flint water crisis or presidential campaign to create the momentum need to fix them. 

If “we can go bigger than that,” Mr. President, then let’s do so.

Scott Paul is president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.