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Robert J. Samuelson: The highway fuss: How much to spend is a judgment call

Published: Wednesday, July 9 2014 9:27 p.m. MDT

But the record needs context. With 607,000 U.S. bridges, those 67,000 represent 11 percent of the total — a share that's down from about 25 percent in 1990. Also, "structurally deficient" does not automatically mean unsafe, notes a report from the Congressional Research Service. It may mean that weight restrictions need to be posted or some repairs done. Most bridges are supposed to be inspected every two years.

As for the adequacy of road spending, a Department of Transportation (DOT) report this year estimated that governments at all levels were spending at least $14 billion more a year than needed to maintain existing road conditions. This implies gradual improvement. By contrast, a 2012 DOT report concluded that governments were under spending to maintain prevailing conditions.

How much to spend on transportation is a judgment call, as is the means of payment. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., propose raising the gasoline and diesel taxes by 12 cents a gallon over two years. The extra revenues, they say, would cover projected trust fund spending for a decade. The taxes would also be indexed to inflation, increasing with prices. Their proposal is the most straightforward solution. Its prospects are considered slim.

Highway spending epitomizes the larger budget dilemma. Many Americans like big government — but not the taxes to pay for it. Congress has previously cured the trust fund's revenue shortfalls with deficit-financed transfers. Predictably, that's the favorite now.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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