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Editorial: Dole bridges THE subject

In her re-election campaign commercials, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole has spoken out against illegal immigration and in favor of family farms. But in a smaller forum last week, she touched on another issue vital to North Carolina ó the need for more flexibility in spending federal highway dollars on key transportation projects.
Here, that would be the Interstate 85 bridges over the Yadkin River.
Speaking to the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee of which she is a member, Dole cited two high-priority projects in the state that need immediate funding. She called for changes in allocation methods before it’s time to reauthorize the pertinent transportation law. She said:
“One of these projects, the Interstate 85 bridges over the Yadkin River, is located near my hometown of Salisbury. This project’s cost is $400 million and the North Carolina Department of Transportation is exploring funding options. If any federal funds are directed for the bridges, under current federal law, the project becomes a federal priority and the state must finance the balance of the cost. Due to North Carolina’s method of distributing transportation dollars and the expense of the new bridges, this action would wipe out the funding slated for other transportation projects in that area of the state. I understand the rationale of packaging federal dollars with a federal priority. We should, however, consider methods that provide states more flexibility.”
She did not mention that, lacking other options, the state is leaning heavily toward clamping a toll on this vital traffic artery. But she did go on to advocate for the proposed N.C. International Terminal in Brunswick County, a deep-water port whose chances are sinking for want of $200,000 for an Army Corps of Engineers study. Local money is available, but the government will only allow federal money to fund such studies ó another example of Washington’s inflexibility. “To my utter amazement,” she said, “what we have here is a potentially multibillion dollar project of regional and national importance that is being held hostage at the moment by an appropriations process for a relatively small amount of money.”
Might revenues from a tax on excessive oil company profits have solved these problems? We’ll never know, because Dole and her fellow Republicans filibustered to thwart such legislation. Pundits say the tax never had a chance and was more for election-year show than real change. But highway projects at all levels will make scant progress as long as oil prices have driven up the cost of asphalt and related materials. So an already-slow process grinds to a near-halt while oil company profits soar and OPEC reaps marvelous satisfaction.
Dole’s remarks at the hearing on infrastructure needs rang true, as did those of several metropolitan mayors and senators who spoke. But talk is cheap and pavement is expensive. Last year, Dole helped introduce the bipartisan Build America Bonds Act, which would provide $50 billion in new federal transportation funding, but that bill may have no better chances than the tax on oil profits. The same idea was proposed in 2003 and 2005 ó Dole signed on to those, too ó and the bills went nowhere. Let’s hope some election-year urgency can move Congress from just saying the right things about infrastructure needs to finally doing something about them.

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