Gas tax for bridge fixes ripped

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A proposal floated by a House panel chairman to raise the federal gasoline tax to pay for bridge repairs has been criticized by the White House and Capitol Hill Republicans as a “knee-jerk” reaction to last week”s fatal bridge collapse in Minnesota.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, says a three-year, five-cent-per-gallon tax on gas and diesel fuel could generate $25 billion to repair and replace structurally deficient bridges nationwide. A one-cent-per-gallon tax could generate about $1.7 billion annually.

“We cannot wait for another tragedy,” said Mr. Oberstar, referring to the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed Aug. 1 into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, killing at least seven persons. “We must act, and act quickly.”

But President Bush said the existing 18.3-cent-per-gallon gas tax could pay for fixing the nation”s aging bridge network — if Congress is willing to make budget cuts elsewhere.

“It”s an interesting question about how Congress spends and prioritizes highway money,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities, and the bridges are a priority.”

Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House transportation committee, called Mr. Oberstar“s plan a “Band-Aid approach” to addressing the nation”s transportation infrastructure problems.

“We need a true vision for the expansion of our nation”s transportation networks for future generations,” Mr. Mica said.

Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said he will introduce legislation to prevent states from receiving transportation earmarks, or “pork” projects, not directly related to transportation measures to pay for deficient bridges.

Congress doesn”t need to raise taxes to pay for bridge repair,” Mr. Flake said. “We need to stop wasting transportation funding on pork projects.”

Mr. Oberstar said that he has not settled on the gas tax increase proposal and that other tax options will be considered.

A funding alternative is a $1-per-barrel tax on oil processed at refineries, which would generate more than $16 billion over three years. Another possibility would be taxing the importation of oil into the U.S.

Mr. Oberstar is expected to introduce his “Bridge Reconstruction Initiative” legislation shortly after the House returns from its August recess Sept. 4.

Any revenue generated for the program would be placed in a trust fund to help pay for the upkeep of the 116,172 bridges in the National Highway System, a 162,000-mile network that includes the 46,747-mile Interstate System.

More than 6,170 bridges in the system are rated “structurally deficient,” meaning they have deterioration, cracks or other flaws that require monitoring or repair.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and a presidential candidate, has called for $10 billion for emergency bridge repair. She also proposes to increase federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion a year as a way to reduce the energy and environmental costs of transportation.

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