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Lack of political will, funds leave nation's infrastructure crumbling

The Hoover Dam, one of the world's great engineering feats, is marred by roads with traffic so jammed along the Nevada-Arizona border that it tells a different story about the political will to maintain 21st century infrastructure.

The road leading to the dam cannot accommodate the torrent of tourists and spills them into the overwhelmed little town of Boulder City. Nevada lawmakers are trying to find a private company to build a $400 million bypass because the state can't afford it.

The phrase "you can't get there from here" is increasingly apt nearly everywhere one turns. America's roads, highways, bridges and transit systems are falling apart. Even those not in disrepair are often so crowded that a horse and buggy might seem faster. Cities and suburbs are outgrowing their infrastructure far faster than local governments can find the money to fix them.

While the problem is plain to all, the money and the political will to fix it isn't there.

Two congressionally mandated commissions and a slew of experts and committees have said the nation needs to double, even quadruple, what it spends each year to maintain and repair its aging transportation infrastructure and expand to accommodate population growth.

So there's the rub. No one likes traffic jams and potholes. No one wants people to die because an unsafe bridge has collapsed. But raising federal gas and diesel taxes or boosting tolls and fees isn't popular, either.

Pew Center polls in the last year show that 67 percent of those questioned said their state should not cut money for roads and public transit to balance their budgets. But only 38 percent want federal spending increased and only 27 percent favor an increase in the gas tax that often pays for it.

In Delaware, officials have delayed dozens of capital projects, but still expected a $21 million shortfall in the state's transportation trust fund this summer.

In Texas, a committee recently declared the highway system inadequate and warned lawmakers that congestion would worsen without money for road improvements.

In Pennsylvania, 5,906 bridges, or about 27 percent of the state's total, are structurally deficient, the highest rate in the nation, according to the Washington-based policy group Transportation for America.

Despite the sense of urgency, federal highway and transit programs that underwrite about 40 percent of transportation construction have been in a kind of legislative limbo for two years, limping along under a series of short-term extensions because Congress can't figure out how to pay for them.

"People need to understand all across America what's at stake," said Tony Dorsey of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

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