The Monitor's View

Take the high road on transport

President Obama wants to delay the bill that funds highways, bridges, and mass transit, but the country can't afford to wait.

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Anyone who uses America's roads, mass transit, rails, or ports knows what terrible shape they're in.

For those who seek concrete evidence, 61,000 miles of highways are in poor or fair condition; 150,000 bridges are structurally deficient, and 32,500 public buses are overdue for replacement.

America can't afford to sit idling on transportation. Moving people and goods efficiently is the backbone of the economy. But President Obama proposes standing still. Federal funding for surface transport is set to expire Sept. 30. Rather than reauthorize the bill for another six years, he wants Congress to extend current (inadequate) funding by 18 months.

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It comes down to money and politics. The price tag of a proposed bill is breathtaking – $500 billion. Congress can't handle that right now, the White House reasons. Not with costly healthcare and energy on the agenda. Not with Americans sweating over the US debt.

Sounds logical, but it's not. States need substantial lead time to plan new projects (as opposed to shovel-ready projects covered by the economic stimulus). And they sure can use the jobs that go with these investments. Also, the funding source for highway repair and mass transit – the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, unchanged since 1993 – is broken. It needs to be truly fixed, not just patched.

A solid, six-year transportation bill is awaiting action in the House. It certainly has its dents, and they'll have to be hammered out in the legislative process. But it goes miles further than the transport bill of 2005. Most important, it recognizes that funding has not nearly kept pace with the deterioration of America's infrastructure, and so it more than doubles funding. It moves the US forward by adding high-speed rail to the legislation. It substantially reforms the funding process.

A transport bill must not be charged to the national credit card. Voters at the state level have shown willingness to pony up for better highways and mass transit. Major business groups want action now – and they back higher user fees. This week, the US Chamber of Commerce was on the Hill lobbying against the 18-month delay.

Thomas Donohue, the president of the powerful business lobby, said his group supports an increase in the gas tax to pay for the bill. Key Republicans also support the House bill.

"The American business community is saying we don't see this as a tax. This is a user fee," said Mr. Donohue. Unfortunately, the president doesn't agree.

This is going to be an uphill fight. This week, a key Senate panel backed the president's 18-month delay. The House Ways and Means Committee, whose job it is to come up with revenue for the bill, says it's too busy with healthcare to get to America's highways, bridges, and subways.

But the public, business community, and supporters of the House bill are way ahead of the White House on this. They understand how vital reliable, speedy transportation is to their lives and the economy.

Mr. Obama must remove his roadblock.

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Thomas Donohue's name.]

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