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On the Road Again

Why the Bush administration shouldn't veto an expensive--and necessary--highway bill.

11:00 PM, Feb 18, 2004 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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ARIZONA SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN is among the most vociferous critics of the Bush administration's inability to rein-in nondefense spending. He recently encouraged the administration to veto the Senate's proposed six-year, $318 billion highway reauthorization bill. McCain, one of only twenty-one senators to vote against the reauthorization, has challenged the administration to make good on its threat, asserting that "Presidents who make veto threats and don't fulfill them quickly become irrelevant." With the federal budget deficit at $521 billion and counting, President Bush will face a great deal of pressure to make some kind of grand gesture of financial restraint to shore-up his fiscally conservative right-flank. But when it comes to the highway bill, President Bush should resist such pressure.

As any commuter on the East or West coast can tell you, America's transportation infrastructure is horribly outdated. The Eisenhower Interstate highway system, which makes up the core of America's surface infrastructure, was conceived nearly 50 years ago, at a cost of $22.5 billion. In its time, the system was a marvel. But, according to the Department of Transportation, a full 32 percent of major American roads are now in poor or mediocre condition. What's more, 29 percent of bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Congestion costs the nation about $67 billion a year. Americans waste 3.6 billion hours and 5.7 billion gallons of gas sitting in traffic--all at an average cost of $1,160 per commuter per year.

Bush shouldn't veto the highway bill just because Americans waste time and money on crowded roads: More than 42,000 people die each year on American roads, and nearly one-third of these deaths can be directly attributed to substandard road conditions and roadside hazards. So while support for a major highway bill may come from the most selfish of motives, a massive increase in spending on infrastructure would also save lives.

The president has said he would veto any bill that exceeds $256 billion. The Senate has ignored this threat by large enough margins to overturn a possible veto. But things are far more murky in the House. Congressmen Don Young, the Alaska Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, have spearheaded legislation which dwarfs that proposed by the Senate: a reauthorization bill with a $375 billion price-tag.

UNLIKE THE SENATE, which made only a few modest budget-cut proposals to finance increased spending, Young and Oberstar have proposed a 5 cent inflation-adjusted hike in the gasoline tax, which currently stands at 18.4 cents a gallon--where it has been for more than a decade. This "user fee," in conjunction with the Senate's proposed budget cuts on items such as the ethanol subsidy, would allow the bill to pay for itself without adding a single dollar to the mounting federal budget deficit. Unlike the Senate's $318 billion dollar figure, the House's $375 billion is based on the recommendation of the Department of Transportation, which has said $375 billion is the minimum the highway system needs.

Why does the president so vehemently oppose a massive increase in transportation spending? Probably because he's concerned about losing the support of fiscal conservatives. But the House's proposal, with its accompanying tax increase, would probably insulate Bush from charges of reckless and profligate spending (at least when it comes to highways). Polls show overwhelming support for an increased gas tax that is linked to infrastructure improvements: In a September 2003 Terrance Group poll, 69 percent of respondents answered "yes" when asked, "would you be willing to pay nine cents more per day to help pay for road and bridge repairs?" And in a June 2003 Zogby poll, 74 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "America is facing a transportation crisis."

There is still one more vital element to this equation: jobs. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that every additional $1 billion invested by the federal government in transportation creates 47,500 new jobs. One of the Bush administration's greatest weaknesses going into the 2004 presidential election is the staggering number of American jobs lost since 2001. What better counter could the president hope for when they are attacked by Democrats on the job issue than a massive public works program that benefits big business just as much as the average commuter? Before he vetoes any highway reauthorization bill over $256 billion, maybe the president ought to take a trip around the Washington Beltway during rush-hour--without the massive police escort every commuter dreams of when stuck in Washington's notorious gridlock.

Michael Goldfarb is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.