Friday, August 10, 2007

Higher Federal gas tax to fix bridges proposed

By FREDERIC J. FROMMER - Associated Press Writer - Wed Aug 8, 2007
WASHINGTON - The chairman of the House Transportation Committee proposed a 5-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax to establish a new trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges.

However, the proposal by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., in the wake of last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed five people was immediately rebuffed by his committee's senior Republican.

Oberstar said the trust fund would be modeled on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for building and repairing roads and bridges through federal excise tax on gasoline that is now 18.3 cents a gallon. Revenue from the nickel increase — about $25 billion over three years, according to the congressman — could not be used for any other purpose than bridges.

He said he hoped the idea might win support from President Bush, who vehemently opposed a 5-cent increase in gasoline taxes two years ago and vowed to veto it.

"Governor (Tim) Pawlenty has had a conversion, and I expect the president will as well," Oberstar said. "At least we'll give him that opportunity. If you're not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you."

Last week, the Minnesota governor said he is willing to reverse his long-standing opposition to a state gas tax increase.

The federal Transportation Department did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the proposal.

Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the committee Oberstar chairs, panned the idea, calling it a "Band-Aid approach to a critical national transportation infrastructure problem."

"A knee-jerk reaction to the critical problem facing our transportation and infrastructure systems will only result in a continued failure to address the deteriorating conditions of our highways, ports, airports, and rail systems," Mica said in a statement. "It's like owning an 80-year old house that has serious problems with the plumbing, the heating, the foundation, and a leaking roof, and saying you're going to fix the driveway."

He called instead for the development of a national strategic transportation plan.

Oberstar's proposal would require the Transportation Department to come up with a formula for distributing funds based on public safety and need. Neither the president nor members of Congress could "earmark" specific projects to get money.

Oberstar said he had a commitment from House Democratic leaders "to bring this bill to the House floor as quickly as we can report it from committee" when Congress returns in September.

Speaking Wednesday in Boston, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged to support legislative efforts to repair the nation's aging bridges, roads and schools.

"Our sadness must at least be met with a commitment to address our infrastructure shortcomings. It's a huge task," Pelosi told the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Across the country, more than 70,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, according to the Transportation Department. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

Associated Press writers Ken Maguire in Boston and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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