America's bridge is falling down

The National Guard handed out bottled water around Secaucus, New Jersey, last week where a pipeline serving nearly 300,000 people ruptured. The 72-inch galvanized steel line runs beneath marshland, and residents were told the water was contaminated and that they shouldn't drink from their faucets for a couple of days. Nobody used the learned phrase, I believe, but the pipeline hitched on to America's vastly extended ''hidden agenda'' or, if you want to put it that way, to its ''infrastructure.''

To put it briefly, the economy and interest rates have combined to slow down spending on public facilities all over the nation so that there is a gap there of enormous proportions. It is getting bigger all the time. As an example, maybe half of the 560,000 bridges in the country by one estimate are inadequate or structurally deficient. European countries and Japan haven't let their public facilities decay in this manner. It's reached the point in America where some engineers are warning that the situation threatens the private economy.

Congress voted generously for highway and sewer construction back in the early 1970s but President Nixon impounded funds to help out the budget. There followed the 1974-75 recession and states and municipalities pushed out funds again to help meet the problem, but a lot of it went into social payments like Aid to Families with Dependent Children, not bridge repairs. Often Congress alternates with the states in supplying funds. A new compilation, prepared by the Morgan Guaranty Survey, shows that Congress offset the drop in capital expenditures in 1976. There was a kind of yo-yo alternation in the funds the charts show. But it all amounts to one thing - America, look to your infrastructure.

Just take that one item of bridges. According to estimates by the US Transportation Department, the repairs needed amount to $47 billion (in current dollars). There have been years of neglect here and in other areas. Something must be done shortly. Where's the money coming from?

Almost certainly, sooner or later, higher federal taxes on gasoline must be imposed. Our tax at present, by European standards, is absurdly small. Higher taxes, of course, get into the cost of living. Yet the future seems clear: higher energy costs, more exploration, fuel from shale, partial return to coal, and development of synthetic compounds. In the meantime Mr. Reagan decided against a 5-cent-a-gallon hike in the federal gas tax last May. It would have brought in $5 billion a year, but it seemed the wrong moment.

Anybody can see why an administration hates to raise the gas tax when it's fighting inflation. But there's that infra-structure. If pipelines break, the National Guard must distribute bottled water. A good many European countries incidentally have turned to VAT (Value Added Tax) which is a marvelous money-raiser. It is an indirect national sales tax. All the arguments can be raised against it that are raised against other sales taxes: It is regressive and it costs poor people proportionately more than the rich. Some countries try to modify this by various devices. It's chief virtue is that it is almost automatic, largely self-administering, and it raises an extraordinary amount of money. There are more eggs with less squawk say supporters.

Something has to be done. America has completed its magnificent interstate highway (but this is deteriorating at the rate of 2,000 miles a year.) Traffic snarls are developing in some cities from want of new facilities. Waste treatment plants are strained. The Sunbelt needs more water, inadequate sewer lines in many Midwest areas hinder growth. It's not like the US to lag in these things. France, for example, has improved its railroad beds and handles a train that can speed 250 miles per hour between Paris and Lyon. American officials know the situation. Unemployment in the nation has reached 9.5 percent, and there's a lot of work to do if it could be organized.

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