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The Costs of Building Roads

IN his address to a joint session of Congress last week, President Bush urged enactment of his $105 billion transportation plan within 100 days. That may exceed the legislative speed limit on a proposal that touches lots of interests and has large implications for the country's future. The plan calls for spending $43.5 billion over the next five years to expand the interstate highway system from 43,000 miles to 150,000 miles. Another chunk of the funding would go to bridge repair. Mass transit would get around $16 billion.

Most Americans welcome this proposed fresh tankful of federal money for the country's roadbuilding machinery. The crumbling infrastructure has been talked about for a decade at least, and this plan looks like an effort to do something about it. But looks can be deceptive when it comes to complicated public-works programs.

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One thing that tempers some of the cheering at the state level is the new cost-sharing formula embodied in the Bush plan. States have been used to having Washington take on as much as 90 percent of the cost of new highways. The federal share would shrink to 60 to 75 percent in the Bush proposal.

That represents a hefty new obligation for states already bowing under the weight of other federally mandated program like Medicaid. States also want clearer assurances they'll have more leeway in deciding how and where funds can be spent.

President Bush sees a strengthened transportation network, particularly new highways, as crucial to the economy in the years ahead (to say nothing of the immediate stimulus to employment a major roadbuilding effort would provide in the midst of recession).

Some critics of the plan, however, question its apparent acceptance of the country's car-culture status quo. The US is casting about for ways to reduce reliance on imported oil. Should it be laying plans to accommodate millions more gas-powered vehicles? Wouldn't a larger investment in mass transit, perhaps linking the fast-growing suburban cities that account for the major share of current population growth, make the best long-term sense?

What about the environment? Will a huge investment in better roads merely fuel a huge burst in pollution? The administration's plan includes criteria for distributing funds to areas according to their level of fuel consumption. Doesn't that pose the danger of rewarding lax conservation?

Such questions should play a big role as Congress tailors the administration's proposal to fit its view of the country's needs.

There's little doubt that Americans' enormous reliance on cars will continue far into the future, and that the US road network will have to be upgraded and expanded as centers of population and commerce shift.

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Now is the time to consider ways to make that prospect more palatable, beginning, perhaps, with renewed emphasis on highly fuel-efficient, less-polluting automobiles.

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