How to pay for US road and bridge repair?

Some lawmakers put a hike in the gas tax on the table, but Bush dismissed the idea on Thursday.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse has put the nation's decaying roads and bridges front and center, and politicians are suddenly in a fix-it mood.

In Congress, Rep. James Oberstar (D) of Minnesota proposed Wednesday a national bridge plan that would create dedicated funding for the fixing of the nation's 73,784 bridges rated "structurally deficient" by the Department of Transportation.

Representative Oberstar handled one of the hazmats of contemporary politics by suggesting a five-cent hike in the gas tax. Meanwhile, Minnesota's governor, a two-time opponent of gas-tax raises, says he's open to the idea. But President Bush dismissed the notion on Thursday, saying Congress first needs to change its priorities when spending highway money.

At the same time, Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida is calling for a new nationwide blueprint for the interstate highway system.

For infrastructure wonks, it's a rare moment of national focus on an unglamorous responsibility of government. Long neglect, however, has led to an expensive maintenance backlog, meaning lawmakers may look more seriously at newer financing models such as a mileage tax or privatization.

"Maintenance is just not sexy. It's the boring old stuff that goes on behind the scenes," says Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the libertarian Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. "Because of [politicians'] bias toward new construction and ribbon cutting, and the competition for funds ... it's really hard to do annual maintenance."

The cost of improving the nation's roads and bridges to the levels needed is estimated to be $155.5 billion, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. And the backlog is increasing: The $75 billion in annual spending by federal, state, and local governments combined falls short of levels needed just to maintain the status quo.

Most of the available money comes from gasoline taxes.

The federal government hasn't raised the tax since 1993, while the cost of construction materials has jumped dramatically in recent years due to Chinese demand for materials like concrete and steel. The federal highway trust fund is expected to run dry by 2009.

During the debate in Washington over the last transportation appropriations bill in 2005, raising the gas tax was never on the table. Instead, lawmakers inserted 6,300 earmarks worth $24 billion to fund home-district projects, including the infamous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.

"The bridge to nowhere and other ridiculous spending decisions have given a terrible name to the incredibly important work of fixing infrastructure," says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Even before last week's disaster, 71 percent of motorists said they favored increasing spending on transportation, according to a American Automobile Association poll taken in November. But by a two-to-one margin they preferred tolls over gas tax raises. Mr. Poole interprets the preference for tolls as a desire for fundraising that is tied to specific and useful projects.

Some states are experimenting with new types of tolls. In California, Orange County and San Diego are charging tolls for single-occupant vehicles that want to travel in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes. The toll amount varies depending on traffic volume and can be as high as $9.

Chicago and Indiana have experimented with privatizing roads as a way out of the budget battles involved in road construction and maintenance. Under these deals, investors pay to lease a road or finance the construction of a new one in exchange for the ability to collect and keep toll money. The contracts bind investors to maintain the road and may set annual limits on toll raises.

The momentum of public-private partnerships has slowed as similar proposals have faced setbacks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the idea might be revived given new pressure on politicians to undertake expensive infrastructure fixes. As the head of Minnesota's Department of Transportation pointed out, the state's gas tax would have to be raised more than 30 cents a gallon to fully rehabilitate the state's bridges.

"There's probably going to be no alternative but to turn to tolling and maybe public-private partnerships to fix the backlog of deficient bridges," says Poole, a leading advocate for highway privatization.

For now, most experts, however, suggest that the economics of the privatization model are too new to expect widespread adoption of it. There are also concerns about tolls making a patchwork quilt out of the Interstate system.

Many experts argue that what's needed is another national plan for the highway system now that the Eisenhower's Interstate project is finished.

"There is no clear vision," says Robert Dunphy, senior resident with the Urban Land Institute. "If you had this broader vision of what we're accomplishing with the money, it would be kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way. Everyone would buy [in]."

Some question, though, whether the reaction to the Minneapolis disaster is spawning a rush to spend more money rather than spend it more wisely.

"We've got to look more critically at maintaining what we already have, and, secondly, look skeptically at new construction to make sure it's a good investment," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, DC.

But in Minnesota, longtime advocates for more state spending on roads and bridges say it's past time to bite the bullet and raise taxes and fees. After the governor vetoed a gas tax increase in May, State Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL) warned about the consequences for public safety – words he now regrets since he rejects insinuations that the veto caused the I35W bridge collapse. The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing its long-term investigation, focusing attention now on metal plates called gussets that join steel beams.

Senator Murphy, chairman of the Senate's transportation committee, says the state could raise sales and excise taxes, levy new vehicle transaction fees, or issue new bonds. Also possible is a model being tested in Oregon that taxes mileage rather than fuels. When motorists fill up, the pump takes a mileage reading and adds a per-mile fee to the gas purchase.

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