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Editorial - Betting billions on roads

April 07, 1998

Times are good, new roads are needed, and we can figure out how to pay for it later.

That's the argument that carried the day for Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., who just six months ago was fighting the Republican party's leaders over a plan they said would throw the recently enacted balanced-budget plan out of whack, to the tune of $26 billion.

The bill enacted by the House last Wednesday still spends more than the balanced-budget pact would allow, but the 337-80 vote signals a willingness by House members to commit cash for roads now, and find so-called "offsets" - places in the budget to make offsetting cuts - somewhere down the road.

Part of the reason for Shuster's success came as a result of an argument he detailed in a visit to The Herald-Mail this past January. Instead of spending cash in the nation's transportation trust funds for their intended purposes - roads, bridges and rail crossings - Shuster argued that federal officials were hoarding it to reduce the size of the annual budget deficit.

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Shuster proposed to do for those funds what Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan had sought to do with the Social Security trust funds - take them off-budget, so that the nation would get a truer picture of its financial condition.

Last Wednesday's passage of Shuster's bill came in part because members were unwilling to face that question in an election year, and because it included $9 billion for road projects designated by individual members. Faced with a bill that had something for every district, the majority just couldn't say no.

The one thing this bill doesn't address, and which didn't seem to occur to Shuster when he spoke to us this past January, is the possibility that gasoline won't always be as cheap as it is now. This bill is an expensive bet that the status quo will prevail for a long time to come, and that U.S. taxpayers won't be investing in roads that future generations will find too costly to travel. Remember that the next time your Congressional representative points with pride to a new road project.

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