Warning: unsafe bridges ahead

It seems difficult to grasp why Congress and successive administrations in Washington have been so tardy in going about the long overdue task of repairing and upgrading the nation's extensive system of bridges.

The United States, it might be recalled, is a land literally spanned by bridges. Some 557,516 by one measure. But, as a new study by the US Department of Transportation confirms, as many as 45 percent of the nation's bridges are considered either deteriorated or inadequate. That means 248,527 bridges.

Lawmakers have known about this situation for years, but solutions have tended to be piecemeal. A four-year highway measure including bridges was enacted back in 1978, with a supplemental bill passed in late 1981 that provided funding through 1982. But that means that a new program will be needed for 1983 and beyond.

To let the deterioration continue can only increase eventual costs years hence - when structural and traffic problems really get out of hand. Both the Senate and House now are considering somewhat different legislative measures for bridge and highway repair work. The House version approved by the Public Works Committee, for example, would provide $6.9 billion through fiscal year 1986 for bridge work. This measure is based on enactment of a new 5 cents a gallon highway tax, a sensible approach albeit one which President Reagan has said he will not accept.

That means opting for some alternative -- drawing down on the current balance of the federal Highway Trust Fund (resisted by many lawmakers), providing funds out of general revenues, cutting back on the numbers of bridges eligible for federal monies, or setting up a federal construction budget for capital works that is separate from the main operating budget. Currently, eligibility standards are fairly flexible so that states can draw on federal funds for many bridges.

However the money is raised, Congress and the administration must get on with it. To delay putting the nation's bridges in order is the height of economic short-sightedness.

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