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A debate worth having; Higgins deserves credit for raising issue of rebuilding our roads and bridges

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, certainly knows how to start a conversation. His $1.25 trillion domestic "nation building" infrastructure program presents a logical, well-researched case for rescuing the country's roads and bridges at a time when a massive federal budget deficit -- and rancorous politics -- make its likelihood of adoption a very low order of probability.

But the subject is important and the debate it is meant to provoke is well worth the time spent. With data provided by the politically centrist New America Foundation and the American Society of Civil Engineers, Higgins bolsters his argument with several indisputable facts:

The work is both urgent and inevitable. The nation has 69,000 structurally deficient bridges, 2,088 in New York State and 99 of them in Western New York. Failure to repair them is a drag on the economy and a risk to human life, as painfully documented by the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse and the 1987 Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse in New York. Closer to home, emergency repairs have recently been made to highway bridges in Tonawanda and Springville.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- a famously conservative organization -- estimates that inadequateinfrastructure will cost the nation $336 billion in lost economic growth over the next five years.

Plainly, this work needs to be done and, eventually, will be done. The only questions are when and how it will be funded. The longer we wait, the more the work will cost.

The combination of historically low interest rates and stubbornly high unemployment rates make this an opportune time to act. Five-year debt financing is below 1 percent, Higgins says, and the increased economic activity will bolster tax revenues enough that the actual cost of the program would be only half the $1.25 trillion proposed in his bill.

What is more, the New America Foundation estimates the program would create some 5.5 million jobs. So, why not? The only reason -- and it's a big one -- is the nation's frighteningly high budget deficit. Brought on by needed spending in the face of a catastrophic recession and political gridlock in Congress, the deficit has blown past the $1 trillion mark for four years running. Little improvement is forecast or even likely, given the chronic and persistent failure of the fundamental mechanism needed for the country to work: compromise.

The deficit truly is a critical matter, but so is the condition of the national infrastructure, the need to lower the unemployment rate and the opportunity to take advantage of interest rates that may not be this low for generations to come. What is more, this kind of public works spending is how Congress and the Obama administration should have proceeded with the 2009 economic stimulus bill that was, in the end, insufficiently stimulating.

We don't expect this program to be adopted any time soon, especially in the months before a presidential election. It is as controversial and expensive as it is ultimately necessary. But it would be a healthy thing for the subject to become a matter of debate in this year's elections, congressional as well as presidential. If even just that happens, Higgins will have rendered a valuable service.

And in the meantime, the bridges will continue to deteriorate.