Repairing our crumbling roads

When U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy suggested raising the gasoline tax last month to pay for infrastructure improvements, everyone seemed to want to hurl stones at the guy.

Of course, it's pretty easy to find something to toss amid the rubble of Connecticut's crumbling roadways.

It took political bravado for Murphy to raise his voice. He raised it loudly too, saying Washington, D.C., "has its head in the sand."

His colleagues, particularly in the Republican camp, have lacked his courage.

They have frozen the federal gas tax at 18.4 cents per gallon for the past 21 years (it's 24.4 cents per gallon for diesel fuel), which has served only to bankrupt the Federal Highway Trust Fund.

What hasn't remained frozen is the cost of concrete, steel, asphalt, labor and heavy equipment.

This development dovetails with the release of a White House report that deems Connecticut roads to be tied for the worst in the nation, with our bridges ranking in the bottom three.

We may have the worst roads, but we have the third highest gas tax in the nation, close to 50 cents a gallon even before the extra 18.4 cents.

The problem is the money isn't being used as intended. Instead of upgrading the roads and bridges, state lawmakers have a history of treating the Special Transportation Fund as a contingency fund.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, or his successor, must end that practice.

Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Trust Fund can no longer be managed with bookkeeping gimmicks, such as a current one that would jeopardize pensions.

Change will not come without decisive action and bold steps, so Murphy has teamed with a Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, who is breaking ranks with his party.

The pair propose successive 6-cents-a-gallon increases for the next two years, then would index the tax to inflation moving forward.

It's understandable motorists cringe at the words "gas tax," but it's preferable to a horizon of lanes closed for emergency repairs, potholes and failing bridges.

More than time is at stake when we travel on such hazardous paths. Our roads take a daily beating from cars and trucks, are subject to severe weather conditions and we have more than the usual number of bridges per mile of highway that require expensive maintenance.

There is an alternative to the gas tax, by the way. They are called tolls. No one wants that.

Murphy and Corker are acting like grown-ups. Congress needs to do the same and raise the gas tax despite political liabilities.

It's time lawmakers pull their heads out of the sand and recognize that freeways are never free.