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Published September 06 2007

Congress members bicker over raising the gas tax

WASHINGTON – House Democrats feuded with Republicans and the Bush administration Wednesday over raising gasoline taxes to pay for safer bridges.

A month after an interstate bridge collapsed in Minneapolis and killed 13 people, the government is struggling to develop a long-term way to pay for repairs and new construction.

The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee promoted his plan to increase the federal gasoline tax from 18.3 cents a gallon to 23.3 cents a gallon. The additional money raised would go to a bridge trust fund.

Such a step is necessary, said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., because Congress cannot solve the problem with a “bake sale.”

But President Bush’s transportation secretary, Mary Peters, told the committee that “increasing federal taxes and spending would likely do little, if anything, to address either the quality or performance of our roads.” Peters urged better use of existing money.

Like the president, Peters said lawmakers’ pet projects for their own districts were diverting federal money from where it was most needed.

Peters has supported states’ efforts to use congestion pricing and electronic tolls to help pay for transportation needs.

But Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who heads the subcommittee on highways and transit, contended that approach would “drive Americans off the roads with extortionist tolls.”

Oberstar plans legislation that would establish a fund to repair, replace and rehabilitate bridges that are listed as structurally deficient on the National Highway System. Oberstar says the trust fund, which would not allow congressional and executive branch earmarks, would raise about $25 billion over three years.

More than 70,000 bridges are rated “structurally deficient” – including the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

“It demands a national response,” Oberstar said.

Peters said the percentage of bridges rated as structurally deficient has decreased from nearly 19 percent in 1994 to 12 percent today.

“It would be both irresponsible and inaccurate to say that the nation’s transportation infrastructure is anything but safe,” she said.

The committee’s top Republican, Rep. John Mica of Florida, said Oberstar’s approach amounted to a “knee-jerk” reaction. Mica favors a broad plan to address all transportation and infrastructure needs.

But Minneapolis’ mayor, Democrat R.T. Rybak, told the committee he supported Oberstar’s bill and that the country has not spend enough on roads, bridges or transit systems.

“I say this as the mayor of a city recovering from a tragedy that is not an act of God,” he said. “It was a failure of man.”

Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, said the Federal Highway Administration needs to develop a risk-based approach to identify the bridge problems most in need of attention.

He also said the agency needs to determine whether its engineers are spending enough time examining such bridges.