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States struggle for financing to meet road needs

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 2:07 p.m. MDT

LAS VEGAS — The Hoover Dam, one of the world's great engineering feats, is marred by roads with traffic so jammed along the Nevada-Arizona border that it tells a different story about the political will to maintain 21st century infrastructure.

The road leading to the dam cannot accommodate the torrent of tourists and spills them into the overwhelmed little town of Boulder City. Nevada lawmakers are trying to find a private company to build a $400 million bypass because the state can't afford it.

The phrase "you can't get there from here" is increasingly apt nearly everywhere one turns. America's roads, highways, bridges and transit systems are falling apart. Even those not in disrepair are often so crowded that a horse and buggy might seem faster. Cities and suburbs are outgrowing their infrastructure far faster than local governments can find the money to fix them.

While the problem is plain to all, the money and the political will to fix it isn't there.

Two congressionally mandated commissions and a slew of experts and committees have said the nation needs to double, even quadruple, what it spends each year to maintain and repair its aging transportation infrastructure and expand to accommodate population growth.

So there's the rub. No one likes traffic jams and potholes. No one wants people to die because an unsafe bridge has collapsed. But raising federal gas and diesel taxes or boosting tolls and fees isn't popular, either.

Pew Center polls in the last year show that 67 percent of those questioned said their state should not cut money for roads and public transit to balance its budget. But only 38 percent want federal spending increased and only 27 percent favor an increase in the gas tax that often pays for it.

At the same time, three-quarters say more spending on roads, bridges and other public works would help create jobs.

"The American public has turned selfish. They don't really want to invest in this stuff," said Robert Atkinson, a technology think tank executive who helped lead one of the federal transportation commissions. "It's akin to leaving your house to your kids when you die without fixing the roof because you wanted to spend the money instead on Florida vacations."

In Delaware, officials have delayed dozens of capital projects, but still expected a $21 million shortfall in the state's transportation trust fund this summer. The deficit is seen as growing to $1 billion by 2016.

In Texas, a committee recently declared the highway system inadequate and warned lawmakers that congestion would worsen without money for road improvements. Gov. Rick Perry's plan for a toll road across the state was abandoned in the face of uproar from ranchers whose land would be seized to build it.

In Pennsylvania, 5,906 bridges, or about 27 percent of the state's total, are graded structurally deficient, the highest rate in the nation, according to the Washington-based policy group Transportation for America.

The emergency closure this month of the 50-year-old Sherman Minton Bridge, one of three spans that connect southern Indiana and Louisville, Ky., has snarled the daily commute for tens of thousands of motorists. Officials found cracks in the steel span, raising safety concerns. The two states have struggled for years to find the money to build two more bridges.

Maryland business leaders persuaded the governor and lawmakers to spend more on road construction after a state commission found nearly $1 billion in transportation dollars had been diverted to the general fund budget.

In Georgia, lawmakers approved legislation to allow 12 regions around the state to ask voters next year whether to raise their sales tax by a penny per dollar to pay for an approved list of transportation projects. Officials in the 10-county Atlanta region recently endorsed a $6.14 billion draft list of transportation projects, from light rail to new highways, to ease congestion that's among the worst in the nation.

The consequences of inaction are severe.

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