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Transportation panel urges gas tax increase of up to 40 cents per gallon to fix roadways

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    WASHINGTON — Federal gasoline taxes should be increased up to 40 cents per gallon over five years, a divided special commission urged Tuesday in calling for drastic changes to fix aging bridges and roads and reduce traffic deaths.
    The two-year study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission is the first to propose broad changes after the devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis last August shone a spotlight on the deteriorating state of the nation’s infrastructure. Calling for immediate action, the congressionally created panel warned that ‘‘applying patches’’ is no longer acceptable. It said the nation risks tens of thousands of highway casualties each year and millions of dollars lost in economic growth.
    ‘‘The crisis is now,’’ the report said.
    The 68-page compilation of findings and recommendations, which were supported by nine of the 12 members on the commission, is expected to re-ignite congressional and political debate over raising gasoline taxes. The gas tax has not been increased since 1993, and recent efforts by Congress to increase it have faltered, over the objections of the Bush administration.
    The commission was expected to present its findings Thursday to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and to a Senate panel later this month, but House Republican leaders quickly said they would oppose a tax hike.
    ‘‘A dramatic increase in the gas tax does not stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing Congress,’’ said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the top Republican on the House Transportation panel.
    In a 10-page dissent, the commission’s chairwoman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, and two other members agreed with several aspects of the report but sharply criticized the proposal for higher gasoline taxes. She and the two commissioners are calling instead for sole reliance on tolls and private investment, which Peters said would avoid sending millions of dollars of new tax revenue to Washington that end up as congressional pork. Department spokesman for said the three commissioners opted not to appear at the news conference to avoid a public display of internal division.
    Under the proposal, the current tax of 18.4 cents per gallon would be increased by 5 cents to 8 cents annually for five years and then indexed to inflation afterward to help fix the infrastructure, expand public transit and highways as well as broaden railway and rural access. The increase is designed to take effect in 2009, after President Bush leaves office.
    Other sources of revenue could come from tolls, peak-hour ‘‘congestion pricing’’ on highways, freight fees and ticket taxes for passenger rail improvements, the report said.
    ‘‘A failure to act will be catastrophic to this nation,’’ said Jack Schenendorf, the commission’s vice chairman. He contended the tax increase would amount to ‘‘less than a cost of a candy bar and a fifth of the cost of a cafe latte’’ for the average U.S. motorist.
    ‘‘We saw what happened with Katrina,’’ he said, referring to the 2005 hurricane which overwhelmed aging levees. ‘‘We don’t want to see the transportation system to see the same fate of the New Orleans levees.’’
    Commissioner Paul Weyrich, a Republican appointee to the commission and chairman of the Free Congress Foundation, said he is philosophically opposed to higher taxes but decided to support it this time in light of the growing transportation problems.
    The recommendations, if implemented, are expected to cost $225 billion each year for the next 50 years:
    The commission, established by Congress in 2005, also called for the country to rebuild and expand its rail network to meet a growing demand for alternatives to congested highways and to promote partnerships between the public and private sectors at U.S. ports. Its report comes as state governments and several business groups call on Washington to raise gas taxes to pay for substantial transportation improvements. The Minneapolis bridge collapse, which killed 13 people and injured about 100, also drew new calls for additional spending.
    ‘‘The time is now to work together to find a solution to this complex problem,’’ said John Engler, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers, which is open to a tax increase but isn’t formally supporting it. ‘‘The U.S. will soon be facing a competitive disadvantage if we don’t develop a national plan to improve the quality of our infrastructure system.’’
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