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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.

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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.


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