In the wake of the tragic collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, government officials are elevating the discussion on how to fund the country's transportation infrastructure. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., has developed a proposal to create a dedicated fund — similar to the Highway Trust Fund — that would pay for the repair and inspection of National Highway System (NHS) bridges.

While applauding Oberstar's efforts, state and local officials say the need for increased funding is huge and cite the U.S. Department of Transportation estimate that the current NHS bridge investment backlog is $32.1 billion, including funds for 6,175 bridges deemed structurally deficient.

Although several groups have been reviewing options for funding future transportation needs, including the Washington-based American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), arguments already have begun over the best way to finance Oberstar's plan. One idea being considered is a temporary, 5 cent-per-gallon federal gas tax increase. Oberstar's staff says the temporary gas tax is the leading financing option so far, but notes serious opposition to it.

Ohio Republican and House Minority Leader John Boehner tells American City & County that, “Instead of proposing yet another tax increase, Congress should work on stopping costly pork projects that misdirect billions in highway funding away from true priorities, such as bridge repairs and construction. Another increase to the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, and right in the heart of the summer travel season, is not the right approach to addressing infrastructure problems, and it's a solution most families don't support.”

Leslie Wollack, principal legislative counsel for the Washington-based National League of Cities, says her organization's members support an increase in the federal gas tax to fund transportation infrastructure in general. “The gas tax is the tax that everyone knows that has worked for so many years,” she says. “We're open to other things, but we think the federal government has the main responsibility to fund infrastructure.”

Tony Giancola, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of County Engineers (NACE), also supports Oberstar's efforts, but says one concern he has is what would happen to the funds that already are set aside for bridge repairs, referring to money from the Highway Trust Fund. An increase in money for bridges is important, and NACE supports Oberstar's effort, Giancola says. “It would just be nice if it were just increasing funding for the existing fund.”

Richard Macchi, Bell County, Texas, engineer, says he worries existing funds would be spent on projects other than transportation infrastructure. “I am against the diversion of gas tax revenues for other uses,” he says.

Jim Berard, Oberstar's spokesman, says the congressman will seek to find a compromise, but if a temporary gas tax is deemed the best solution, he will pursue it. “It is entirely possible that some other source of revenue might be found,” Berard says. “It's also possible we could get Congress to override a presidential veto — if Bush decided to veto — if Congress thinks that's the way to go.”

The author is the Washington correspondent for American City & County.