Good highways and airports are critical to a strong economy, but are they more important than better education? Or more medical research? Rep. Bud Shuster seems to think so. As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he is pushing a plan that would remove the transportation trust funds from the government's budget-review process. Congress should flatly reject this plan. Placing large portions of federal spending ''off-budget'' would make it harder for the government to balance its books and force even deeper cuts in other programs. Lawmakers are paid to make choices, and transportation spending should be subject to the same choices as other federal programs.

Rep. Shuster has been trying for more than a year now to pull transportation trust fund spending out of the budget debate. The reason is no mystery. Unencumbered by the caps that restrict many other programs, spending on transportation likely would rise under the Shuster plan - perhaps by as much as an additional $20 billion over the next five years.Supporters of this plan offer several arguments in their defense: Motorists are cheated, they say, when unspent gasoline taxes pile up in the Highway Trust Fund; the trust fund surplus is being hoarded to mask the federal deficit; and crumbling roads and bridges desperately need more federal spending.

Each of these arguments is full of holes. Since the Highway Trust Fund was created in 1957, the government has actually spent $6 billion more on road programs than it has collected through gasoline taxes. The $19 billion surplus in the trust fund today is entirely made up of interest the government has been paying itself for the last 25 years. If this were real interest - the kind banks pay depositors - that would be one thing. But trust fund interest is really just an accounting entry, money the Treasury transfers from its right pocket to its left.

Indeed, transportation programs have hardly been cheated. Since 1976, transportation spending has tripled, and has been in the middle range in terms of spending growth among federal programs. In fact, over the years, the government has taken about $38 billion from general tax revenues - not from the trust funds - to pay for roads in some economically depressed areas.

Removing transportation spending from the budget process would set a dismal precedent. The federal government has more than 160 trust funds, and each almost certainly would demand ''off budget'' treatment if Rep. Shuster wins this fight. The budget-balancing process already is difficult enough because Congress and the president insist on keeping Social Security off the table.

That's why a broad group of Republicans and Democrats are against the Shuster plan. So is Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who says the scheme ''would lead to fragmentation of the budgeting process . . . and could engender criticism in financial markets.''

Certainly, more money could be spent to improve roads and airports, but it need not all come from Washington. To its credit, Congress has developed programs that use federal dollars to leverage private capital for infrastructure improvements. Even more far-reaching ideas are now coming from some congressional Republicans, who would like to reduce the cumbersome federal role altogether and hand more responsibility and fund-raising to the states. When a similar approach was adopted for wastewater treatment plants some years ago, construction costs dropped dramatically.

The House is expected to consider the Shuster trust fund plan next week. Lawmakers should vote it down, keep transportation ''on-budget'' and make the hard spending choices they're paid to make.

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