The Salem News (Mass.), July 6:

The nation’s drivers pay an extra $515 a year to operate and maintain their vehicles thanks to the shoddy state of America’s roads, according to a study by TRIP, a national transportation research group.

That’s $515 above and beyond routine wear and tear and normal driving costs, and it’s something for commuters to think about as they’re stuck in traffic, bouncing over teeth-rattling potholes or sitting in auto repair shop waiting room while their car undergoes yet another alignment.

TRIP estimates that 28 percent of the nation’s key roads are in “poor” condition; in Massachusetts, the number is 20 percent. And “poor” is an understatement: Roads in the category need to be completely rebuilt. The cosmetic effect of a few layers of fresh tar won’t do the trick.

Meanwhile, Congress seems content to let the problem linger. Lawmakers have allowed the Highway Trust Fund, a key source of transportation investment, to run perilously close to insolvency. Revenues haven’t kept pace with infrastructure repair needs, accounting for a $16 billion annual shortfall. The gap could top $120 billion in a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Like almost everything in Washington, the trust fund has become another battlefield for Democrats and Republicans, and the House and the Senate. Taxpayers who rely on a safe, reliable transportation system, are left on the side of the road while their elected representatives try to score partisan points.

It has to end, and it has to end now. Too much of the economy ”“ businesses large and small, local and multinational ”“ is tied to the transportation system for it to continue to crumble. The nation’s highway system remains key to interstate commerce, and investment on the federal level is not only wise, it’s vital.

The fund distributes about $50 billion a year for transportation projects, generally covering 80 percent of the cost of the work, with states picking up the rest. We shudder to think of how our roads and bridges would look without that federal investment.

Congress approved a short-term fix for the fund before going on summer vacation. That money, however, runs out at the end of the month, and there’s no sign of a deal in sight.

One of the major sticking points is where to find revenue to replenish the fund. There are two major proposals up for debate:

A plan championed by House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., would tie increased highway funding to a corporate tax overhaul. The hope is to change U.S. tax laws that discourage American-based multinational companies from bringing home foreign profits. A cut in the rate, the thinking goes, would bring some of the estimated $2 trillion in foreign profits back to U.S. shores. Some of that new revenue, Ryan and his supporters say, could be used to return the Highway Trust Fund to healthy levels.

Many lawmakers, however, are wary of being seen as giving tax breaks to large corporations.

“The politics are difficult,” Jon Traub, a former Republican congressional aide, told Dow Jones Business News earlier this month. “It’ll be hard for some members to explain why they are doing tax legislation benefiting multinational businesses and not local businesses and local individuals.”

The more straightforward solution would be to raise the gas tax, which has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon (24.4 cents per gallon for diesel) since 1993.

Even Republicans feel it may be time for a modest increase in the tax, which costs the average driver about $97 a year, according to the American Road & Transportation Builder’s Association. However, there is a push to index the tax to inflation, meaning it would rise whenever the Consumer Price Index did. That would be a horrible idea, as it would make the tax increase automatic and relieve lawmakers from having to answer to their electorate if the money is not well spent. Massachusetts voters wisely rejected a plan by Bay State legislators to similarly index the state tax.

No one should be calling for more spending and less accountability.

The bottom line is there needs to be a greater investment in our regional and national infrastructure. It is up to Congress to make sure it happens in a thoughtful, fair and timely manner. It’s what our economy needs and our motorists deserve.