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National view: Time has come to renew nation's transportation infrastructure

In 1956, President Eisenhower championed the dream of a 40,000-mile coast-to-coast network of all-weather highways to move people and goods more quickly andeconomically than ever before.

In 1956, President Eisenhower championed the dream of a 40,000-mile coast-to-coast network of all-weather highways to move people and goods more quickly andeconomically than ever before.

But how would it be funded? An agreement was reached that those who used the system should pay for it. So a 3-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax was imposed to go into a Federal Highway Trust Fund for financing the Interstate Highway System and other federal-aid highways. Over the years, the tax was increased as costs rose.

The last increase in the federal tax on gasoline was way back in 1993, when it rose to its present level of 18.4 cents per gallon. Since then, travel on U.S. highways has skyrocketed from 4.1 trillion passenger miles a year to more than 5.4 trillion by 2004.

As the nation's population passed300 million in 2006 with 199 millionlicensed drivers, highways and bridgescontinued to deteriorate, as we were rudely reminded by the August collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. And traffic congestion now costs our economy $200 billion a year.

Now come the results of a two-yearstudy by the bipartisan National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which recommends increasing the federal gasoline tax by up to 40 cents a gallon over five years to help fix America's crumbling roads, bridges and mass transit systems.

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Needed improvements to our national surface transportation system, including rail and ports, will cost $225 billion a year for the next 50 years, the commission reports.

Each penny of federal gasoline tax raises about $1 billion a year. An annual increase of 5 to 8 cents per gallon over five years,followed by indexing increases to inflation and adding other sources of revenue, would help meet those needs. It also would continue the tradition of users paying for needed improvements rather than turning over our transportation infrastructure to private, for-profit interests.

Among the other recommended sources of revenue are congestion pricing, which charges drivers more during peak-hour congestion that at other times and charges a fee for entering congested city centers.

For example, the charge is now $16 to drive into downtown London, a strong incentive for commuters to use rail transit. Money for rail transportation improvements would come from ticket taxes for passengers and freight fees for shipments. Ports also are included in the report because efficient operation of and access to seaports is vital to the American economy. One illustration: The Port of Virginia's three general cargo marine terminals in Norfolk accounted for more than 340,000 jobs and $41 billion in total revenues in 2006 alone. The commission's recommendations include promoting public-private partnerships at ports to modernize and expand facilities.

With Shanghai projected to be the world's busiest container port in a few years, and the Middle East a growth center for international trade, it is essential that the U.S. capitalize on its maritime strengths and heritage. The committee's report calls for a "new beginning" for the nation's transportation programs, while maintaining a strong federal role in surface transportation. That's the challenge for our transportation future, based on a legacy worth preserving.

Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Eisenhower, in a recent Washington Post op-ed noted that the nation is beset with "a costly, unpopular war; a long-neglected infrastructure; and an agingand increasingly needy population." And she lamented, "I am not alone in worrying that my generation will fail to do what my grandfather's did so well: Leave Americaa better, stronger place than the one it found."

More than half a century after the creation of the Interstate Highway System, let's not fail to leave something better in its place. Adopting the recommendations of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission would be a good start.

Gerald Bastarache spent 31 years in transportation public relations, serving as director of communications at both the Highway Users Federation and, more recently, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He wrote this from Washington, D.C.

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