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Warning: Not enough road work ahead

Welcome back to work. If you are like most Americans, Memorial Day weekend was not only a solemn occasion to recall the men and women of the U.S. armed forces who gave their lives in service to their country but also an opportunity to take some time away from the job, hit the road and see a bit of America with the family.

And chances are, as this was one of the biggest travel weekends of the year, the state of the nation's roads, bridges and airports did not go unnoticed. They are, to put it mildly, in failing condition and getting worse. According to the most recent grade given by the American Society of Civil Engineers, it's a D-plus for infrastructure out there.

In Washington state last week, an Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River collapsed, apparently after an oversized truck hit it. But the structure was also rated as structurally deficient, a 5 out of 9 by state safety inspectors, and was obsolete and vulnerable. Nationwide, there are thousands of bridges with similar ratings.

Highways are in similar straits, with 42 percent of urban roads now classified as congested, leaving drivers with long, pothole-strewn daily commutes. That costs Americans an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. The long-term price paid in lost sales, productivity and jobs could be far greater. And in Baltimore, don't get people started on the condition of the city's water system and the high cost of repairs.

The problem is that U.S. funding for transportation and other types of infrastructure has not kept pace with inflation or the country's needs. This is not a new phenomenon, but it is an increasingly threatening one. This year, Maryland raised its gasoline tax for the first time in more than 20 years to help address the transportation problem on the state level. Other states have taken similar action recently to boost their highway and transit funding levels as well.

But that surely won't be enough if the federal government abdicates its historic role in financing transportation and other public works projects. The federal Highway Trust Fund remains in danger of going broke this year, chiefly because Congress has not seen fit to raise the federal gas tax in two decades.

Make no mistake, the federal government's 18.4-cents-per-gallon motor fuel tax isn't likely to be increased any time soon. House Republicans are no more likely to raise the gas tax than to willingly surrender their majority. Even many Democrats object. In recent years, that has left Washington in the unsustainable posture of financing transportation on a haphazard basis, without a long-term road map or adequate funding source, chiefly through short-term resolutions.

But there are some alternatives worth exploring. One particularly promising idea came to light last week from an unlikely source — Maryland's newest congressman, freshman Rep. John K. Delaney. A Democrat with a background in finance who represents the 6th District, which runs from Montgomery County through Western Maryland, Mr. Delaney is lead sponsor of a bill to create a $750 billion infrastructure fund financed through bond sales.

But here's the rub. Those 50-year bonds with a 1 percent interest rate wouldn't be guaranteed by the federal government but by private companies looking to repatriate overseas holdings. Remember Apple CEO Tim Cook's appearance before a Senate subcommittee last week? The tech giant has $102 billion sitting offshore because the tax code would penalize it for moving the money back into the United States.

Mr. Delaney's Partnership to Build America Act would set up an auction in which U.S. corporations would bid down the price to repatriate their funds. If, for instance, the winning bid was a 4-to-1 ratio, a company like Apple would have to purchase $1 in bonds for every $4 repatriated — the equivalent of an 8 percent tax rate.

Obviously, the whole of the nation's unmet infrastructure needs (estimated by the civil engineers' society at $3.6 trillion) can't be financed this way, but it would certainly be helpful. Already, Mr. Delaney has attracted both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. That shouldn't come as too great a shock since Republican leaders and President Barack Obama have both expressed interest in such a bank before.

Kudos to Mr. Delaney, but he's got a big lift ahead, particularly given that the congressional track record on budgetary cooperation isn't good. But at least it's a sign that progress is possible. And given the sorry state of America's roads and bridges (not to mention dams, water pipes, electric grids, ports and airports), that would come as some relief.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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