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How to pay for US road and bridge repair?

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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.

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