Gutter politics

April 25, 2002

AN OUTBURST against federal bureaucrats is about the safest ploy in a politician's bag of tricks. That's why Mayor Martin O'Malley ranted and raved against Washington on Tuesday - even as he agreed to a legal settlement that requires Baltimore to spend more than $900 million to repair leaky sewers.

Despite Mr. O'Malley's political posturing, Baltimore got a pretty good deal. Instead of insisting that repairs be completed in five years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice gave the city a 14-year timeline.

Yet Mr. O'Malley complains about the inherent unfairness of unfunded federal mandates. He's not alone. And he's right.

There is growing awareness in Congress that the nation's locally maintained sewers and water pipes are in bad shape and getting worse. One estimate puts the price of overdue repairs at hundreds of billions of dollars. That's why some people advocate the creation of a federal trust fund to repair and maintain sewers. Such a fund, replenished by gasoline taxes, has done marvels with highways.

But what kind of a federal tax could be attached to toilets?

The Baltimore area's crumbling sewers - which pollute the Chesapeake - developed over several decades. Since the pipes were underground, most politicians chose to ignore the problem, passing it on to future leaders.

Basic infrastructure needs deserve more federal aid. But Washington should be praised, not condemned, for insisting on needed repairs that will lessen harmful overflows to our fragile bodies of water.

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