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Commission: Roads, bridges in disrepair

Pothole on street.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: 2008's not starting too much better than last year ended for the major carmakers. January was a lousy month for Detroit and its Japanese competition. Only General Motors posted a bump in sales. Overall analysts expect about 15 and a half million cars and trucks will be sold in this country this year. But the roads and bridges they're going to drive on might not be up to the task. A Congressional commission released an infrastructure report this morning. Jeremy Hobson tells us its conclusions are pretty blunt.


JEREMY HOBSON: Geoff Yarema, one of the authors of today's report, says the nation's transportation system is in crisis.

GEOFF YAREMA: Whether we've just woken up to it or known about it for a while, we've let it ride. And we've let it ride to the point we're about to fall off a cliff.

One of the problems, he says, is that the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gas tax is no enough to maintain aging roads.

YAREMA: First of all, our system is no longer modern. It is antiquated. So we need much more money than we've had. Secondly, the gas tax has not been indexed to inflation, so in fact it's going down about 3 to 5 percent every year.

And, he says, more fuel efficient cars mean more wear and tear on the system, but less tax revenue. One solution going forward, according to the report: User fees -- like tolls or an odometer tax. Those are ideas that makes sense to Martin Wachs of the Rand Corporation.

MARTIN WACHS: If we don't tax the user at the time and place of use, the alternative is to pay for it out of our income taxes or sales taxes, and I think that's less fair.

But the Heritage Foundation's Ronald Utt says if drivers are going to pick up the tab, they want to see real results and less traffic.

RONALD UTT: We've been providing the public sector with all this tax revenue and what-not for roads, but we have not been getting new roads in return for it.

Utt says part of the long-term solution is to get a significant amount of commuters off the roads -- by allowing people to work from home or at least closer to home.

In Washington, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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