NOBODY argues about the need to repair the US transportation system. Decaying or inadequate highways, bridges, airports, and rails have ranked right up there with environmental protection, health care reform, and better education as public-policy bills coming due. The administration has now addressed the problem, but as with so many other Bush policy road maps, the destination is desirable but the fiscal route is debatable. In particular, many state and local officials pale at the prospect of shouldering more of the expense of building and maintaining roads and airports.
Some, like Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, see a continuation of the Reagan-era pattern of shifting costs - and therefore the burden of increased taxation - to the states. Of course he's right. But the real question is whether, as the president and Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner hold, that's where the burden reasonably belongs.
That marvel of civil engineering, the interstate highway system, is virtually complete. Major connections between cities and regions have been made. Today's worst traffic tie-ups are in burgeoning metropolitan areas where automobile use has far outstripped roads built a half century ago, or longer.
The Conference of State Legislatures, for one, agrees that these gridlock problems are issues best handled by the state and local officials who best understand them. Beyond that, state lawmakers have tired of the growing list of restrictions put on use of federal highway money - raising the legal drinking age to 21, enforcing the national speed limit, collecting federal heavy-vehicle taxes, to name only a few.
Local officials also worry that any increase in the federal role would mean a move by Washington to compete for gasoline tax dollars. Many states have already hiked those taxes to fund road projects. Experts point out that the public has a higher tolerance for fuel taxes tied to highway improvement than for other general purpose levies. Gas taxes have generally remained flat over the past decade. The amount shelled out by US drivers at the gas pump is still small compared to what's paid by people elsewhere.
Some jurisdictions, such as the state of Virginia and Orange County, Calif., are experimenting with toll roads built with private funding.
Under the Bush plan, money already in federal hands, such as the $10 billion or so in the federal highway trust fund, would be drawn on for projects of national importance, including modernization and expansion of some 160,000 miles of existing major roads. Legislation to hasten dispersal of these dollars for the purpose they were intended deserves support. This money should not be tied up in the name of meeting federal deficit-reduction targets.
The administration's transportation plan has some financial and political potholes. But it will at least generate a little momentum toward meeting yet another urgent national need.