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Published: 1/19/2008

Pay now or later

APROPOSAL to raise the federal motor-fuel tax by 40 cents a gallon over five years to fix the nation's crumbling roads and bridges is warranted but the timing could hardly be worse.

With the American economy heading toward a recession - or already in one, depending on which economist is expounding - Congress undoubtedly will shun this painful action, no matter how much it's needed.

Nevertheless, a special commission's report urging higher taxes to fix our aging infrastructure has an urgency about it that cannot be ignored. The congressionally created National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission concludes "the crisis is now" for U.S. highways, bridges, and other transportation networks.

That means a solution should not be put off while politicians dither. Failing to find some way to pay for infrastructure upgrades will be catastrophic, said one of the panel's leaders. And, in the aftermath of the devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis in August, the study is the first to recommend broad changes in public policy to better protect the traveling public.

Besides the gas-tax increase, the commission also endorsed other revenue-producing plans like new toll strategies - including one that would charge motorists in major metropolitan areas more to use highways at busier times.

Other options approved by the panel included freight fees, ticket taxes, and encouraging government on all levels to promote public-private partnerships to help defray infrastructure costs.

Predictably, the commission's chairman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, refused to sign the final report because of the gas-tax recommendation. The Bush Administration has long rejected tax increases in favor of reliance on tolls and vague promises to use existing funds more efficiently.

While many Americans might say the money could be raised by eliminating the billions of dollars routinely expended on so-called earmark projects, that's not a real solution because such projects are funded mainly from borrowed money and the shift would just add to the federal deficit.

What is needed is a continuing and reliable source of funds to build and maintain roads and bridges, plus such vital infrastructure as sewers, water systems, dams, and mass transit.

These are mandatory expenses that won't go away regardless of the temporary ills of the economy, and ignoring or putting them off could drive up costs or even cripple the wheels of commerce.

Higher federal gas taxes may not be politically popular or even likely this year but the public is faced with a certain choice: Pay now or pay later.



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