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A DETOUR ON THE ROAD TO RUIN?

How much more must America's eroding highways deteriorate before the country starts to come to grips with this crisis?

While Japan is investing 5 percent of its gross national product in infrastructure, the figure for the United States is only 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $13 billion more per year is needed just to stabilize deteriorating roads and bridges.One possible response: privatization.

In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Act authorized state governments to surrender part of their highway monopolies to private companies. The firms may build new roads, bridges and tunnels or rebuild existing ones, receiving payment for this work by levying tolls. Typically, a company would maintain the toll long enough to make a profit (like toll amounts, stipulated), then cede the improved road back to the state.

Under this system, states could dicker with private companies to assume most expenses. Normally, a dollar of state highway money gets a matching federal dollar. But private firms might kick in two or three dollars for every state dollar in order to capture a highway franchise. This week Scripps Howard News Service reported that five states, including Florida and Texas, already have passed laws to allow private toll projects. So has Puerto Rico.

Privately operated tollways are common overseas, but the concept can jar Americans, to whom the freedom to travel unimpeded is a cherished tradition. Yet citizens could still choose freeway alternatives. Anyway, Americans prize convenience, too. Many aged highways channel motorists through snarled downtowns because those were where commuters worked when the highways were built. Now, suburbanites tend to earn their pay in other suburbs. Intersuburban turnpikes are just one area where privatization might make sense.

Greater highway investment is sorely needed. Apart from interstate congestion, which costs billions annually in lost productivity and wasted fuel, one interstate mile in four needs repair, while 39 percent of the nation's bridges are deficient or obsolete. On this road to ruin, prudent privatization could be a welcome detour.