Sunday, Oct 23, 2016
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Don't dither on infrastructure

DEMOCRATS and Republicans would be well advised to put aside the partisan bickering, grandstanding, and other forms of political one-upmanship that are such an integral part of life inside the Beltway as they figure out how to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure.

Already, there has been wrangling between the Bush Administration and Rep. Jim Oberstar (R., Minn.), head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, over how to pay for fixing the more than 73,000 bridges in need of repair nationally.

Mr. Oberstar favors a temporary increase in the federal gasoline tax from 18.3 cents per gallon to 23.3 cents per gallon. He wants to establish a $25 billion fund over three years to repair or replace 6,175 of the nation's most deficient bridges.

But Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, parroting President Bush, says "increasing federal taxes and spending would likely do little, if anything, to address either the quality or performance of our roads." She, and many Republicans, want to focus on using existing funds more efficiently, charging that lawmakers' pet projects divert transportation funds that should be used to repair roads and bridges.

Other Republicans are calling for development of a plan to meet all infrastructure needs, not just bridges. Our message is: Don't fight about it. Do it all.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says it would take as much as $1.6 trillion to bring the entire infrastructure - which includes dams, sewers, subways, railways, and water systems, in addition to roads and bridges - up to snuff. It will take at least $65 billion just to repair all existing bridge deficiencies. That's more money than Republicans are going to find by using existing funds more efficiently, but putting the kibosh on earmarks will free up billions that could be used almost immediately to begin needed repairs.

Congress should implement the gas tax increase as well. The way gas prices bounce around these days, who'll notice? And 5 cents a gallon on $3-per-gallon gasoline is an increase of only 1.67 percent. But it should make the increase permanent. "Temporary" taxes and tolls almost always become permanent anyway, and it's not like the need will go away.

Congress should also develop a plan for how both immediate repairs and future needs will be addressed. Federal officials - both the current crop and those who served anytime over the past four or five decades - should be ashamed of themselves that there wasn't a plan already in place. They should know that these things wear out.

But lawmakers shouldn't do any of this just because of the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people, or even because the next bridge, road, or dam that gives out could kill scores or hundreds more. They should act because the future economic health of the United States will depend on the quality of the infrastructure that underpins the economy.

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