Paying the Price

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

THE CAUSE of the deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis on Aug. 1 is still unknown. But since the span plunged into the Mississippi River, the question of how to finance a generation's worth of needed infrastructure repairs and new construction for the nation has begun to get the attention it deserves.

According to a recent report by the New America Foundation, the United States spent 3 percent of its gross domestic product on building and maintaining infrastructure between 1950 and 1970. Since 1980, however, that share has been at 2 percent. One result is a backlog of deficient bridges, a problem that will cost $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to redress, according to a 2005 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Roads, water facilities and electricity grids need work, too. The ASCE study called for a spending of $1.6 trillion over five years to bring the nation's infrastructure up to a reasonable standard. Under current law, the national highway system relies on a federal gas tax for revenue. The tax, which has not been increased since 1993, is a fair user fee that can help pay for construction and upkeep while discouraging overuse of obviously strained national assets and encouraging energy conservation and greater use of public transportation. A permanent uptick of a reasonable size in the gas tax is certainly called for.

President Bush has opposed that measure so far, citing congressional inefficiencies in allocating the funds. Fine; he should work with Congress to make highway spending more rational. There are a number of ideas worthy of consideration that are aimed at doing just that. For example, the federal government should separate capital spending from normal operating expenses, which would give appropriators more flexibility to spend money where it is needed most.

Meanwhile, Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) have proposed a national infrastructure bank that would selectively finance projects with special government bonds. The logic of isolating capital investment, insulating it from political pressures and paying for it with long-term debt is appealing. In some cases, private financing also may be appropriate. When Congress reconvenes in September, it should pay more than its usual lip service to the infrastructure challenge.

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