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Saturday, Aug 03 2013 11:00 PM

Bargain or no bargain, US roads need some help

By The Bakersfield Californian

Almost everyone can agree that the nation's road, bridges and levees are badly in need of repair and retrofit. What too few agree on is how to fund it.

The latest debate centers on President Obama's "grand bargain" -- a proposal to fund infrastructure upgrades by cutting the corporate tax rate of 35 percent to 28 percent and giving manufacturers a preferred rate of 25 percent. He also wants a minimum tax on foreign earnings as a means to address corporate tax evasion.

The Republicans are having none of it. "The tax hike it includes is going to dampen any boost (that) businesses might otherwise get to help our economy," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, offered in response. "In fact, it could actually hurt small businesses." The fact remains 26 states have "poor" pavement on 20 percent or more of their roads, according to an analysis of the Federal Highway Administration's most recent data by USA Today and the transportation research group TRIP. California is fifth-worst among U.S. states with 37 percent of all roads scoring as "poor." State, federal and local funding levels for road and bridge improvements aren't enough to meet growing U.S. needs. Some $85 billion will be needed every year for the foreseeable future to fix our roads and bridges -- twice was spent in 2008, according to the Department of Transportation. And this isn't just a matter of comfort and convenience or even safety. Bad roads and bridges cost consumers billions each year in vehicle repairs and slower freight transportation hurts industry.

It's not like Washington hasn't been paying attention. The government just spent $27 billion in federal stimulus money to improve roads and bridges through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That funding fixed 42,000 miles of asphalt and 2,700 bridges. But it's not enough.

One of the underlying barriers to a political resolution to the problem is the fact infrastructure projects are by nature largely government projects. Federal spending is anathema in this era of dissatisfaction with "big government." And, while Obama says, correctly, that a major and perhaps historic overhaul of the nation's roads and bridges will mean hundreds of thousands of jobs, Republicans fear those jobs will go to unions, driving up costs and strengthening the political foothold of a chief political adversary.

But we can't wait long for this to play out. Lawmakers must establish an infrastructure task force that can identify funding sources and prioritize needs. The Gang of Six hasn't quite delivered on immigration reform but it has moved the debate forward and that's something. Perhaps such an approach would be more effective on this issue. The alternative -- our present, potholed state of affairs -- is that nothing gets done. If Republicans have a better infrastructure improvement plan than what Obama has proposed, we need to see it pronto.

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