Bush cool to federal gas tax increase

Bush and Stanek
President Bush visited the site of the I-35W bridge collapse Saturday. He's shown here with Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Just one week after the deadly I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, President Bush reacted coolly to a plan to raise the federal gas tax.

President Bush said Congress should reprioritize the way it spends highway money instead of raising taxes to pay for future bridge repair.

"Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities," said Bush. "If bridges are a priority, let's make sure that we set that priority before we raise taxes."

"The president is sticking his head in the sand and hoping things just work out."

Bush made the comments one day after Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., announced a plan to increase the federal gas tax from 18 to 23 cents a gallon.

Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, says the money would go into a new trust fund for repairing and replacing bridges. He said the plan would raise about $25 billion over three years.

"The president is sticking his head in the sand and hoping things just work out," Oberstar's office said in a statement released after Bush's remarks.

When he announced the plan Wednesday, Oberstar said the motoring public would support the tax increase.

"If you're not prepared to spend an extra five cents on bridge reconstruction, then God help you. You haven't got a sense of the future," Oberstar said. "One of the most successful, social economic experiments that we have made in this country, apart from Social Security, is the federal highway trust fund. If it's good enough for Dwight Eisenhower, it ought to be good enough for a whole host of fiscal conservatives who have followed since then."

Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota said in a statement that he is not ready to accept Oberstar's plan. Coleman said the problem isn't a shortage of funds, but how the funds are spent.

About $24 billion, or 8 percent of the last $286 billion highway bill, was devoted to highway and bridge projects singled out by lawmakers. The balance is distributed through grants to states, which decide how it will be spent. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.

More than 70,000 of the nation's bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River last Wednesday.

The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)