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Reasonable Compromise Can Break Highway Logjam

The time has come to separate fact from fiction in the debate over transportation funding.

Fri July 11, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Here are the “facts” about the highway funding crisis:

(A1) Bridges and roadways are deteriorating dangerously

(A2) Bridges and roadways are in better shape than they were two decades ago.

(B1) We have no choice except to create additional funding for transportation construction

(B2) We have sufficient funding and need only choose among competing spending priorities

Competing “facts” are hardening both sides of the debate.

The heavy construction industry has a big stake in the outcome of the argument and generally comes down on the side of more money. No surprise there. It is called self-interest. Unless the public sector antes up building money for public projects, there is much less work to be done. This is especially true with private sector plans gathering dust until the economy shows more endurance.

President Obama says “the cupboard will be bare” after August. Yet every year, even in the down years since 2009, $25-40 billion (gas and diesel taxes) are collected and funneled into the highway trust fund for transportation projects. Unfortunately, each year more project money is authorized than is collected. That is called deficit spending.

It is true that the nation has a backlog of highway and bridge construction projects. What is not true, according to the Cato Institute, is that the backlog is growing. Cato reports that its review of Federal Highway Administration data shows that the percentage of U.S. bridges that are structurally deficient has been halved over the last 20 years to something less than 5 percent. A “worst first” policy of project funding could repair or replace the remaining bridges in short order.

Yet such a practical response to an infrastructure funding crisis is not something either executive or legislative leaders seem capable of doing. They prefer to enlarge the pot by tapping taxpayers for additional revenue. I imagine there are not more than 100 thinking Americans who still believe that a new tax load plus mountains of debt will not weigh down our economy.

Name-calling and hyperbolic rhetoric cannot resolve this crisis. Reasonable political compromise can. That is a fact.

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