September 15, 2003 11:00 pm

Oregon's bridges are in a world of hurt. And Oregonians will be in a world of hurt if the bridges aren't fixed, and soon. Cracked faces from a joke may be OK, encouraged even, but cracked bridges are nothing to laugh about.

The 2003 Legislature has gotten more flack than the new Oregon Duck yellow football uniforms. But the Legislature showed foresight to approve bridge repairs as part of a $2.46 billion package for transportation improvements. It's your money, as the TV anchors are wont to say, and you should be happy it is being spent in a way that will make you and your children's lives safer and more pleasant for years to come. What's more, the bill will help the state move freight and create jobs, which is important for a state with — get ready to be embarrassed — the nation's highest jobless rate.

So how do you pay for all this? The legislation uses increased Department of Motor Vehicles and trucking-related fees to fund the construction projects for the state highway system, cities and counties. Fee increases — don't duck yet — will go into effect in January 2004. The short-term hurt will be worth it for the long-term gain.

Besides replacing and repair state and local bridges, the money will be used for for county and city maintenance and preservation, and modernization projects.

Sure, as work progresses on replacing about 393 bridges and repairing 90 others statewide, motorists will encounter detours and traffic delays. It's a small price to pay, however, for the long-term benefits. And local bridges haven't been forgotten, not by any means. Those being replaced include several bridges on Interstate 84 over the Grande Ronde River, and much other work will be done in Northeast Oregon.

The lesson history teaches is not to let infrastructure go too long. There comes a point of diminishing returns — you reach a point where it's either fix what's wrong or else pay the consequences. Oregon has reached that point with its bridges. Even fiscal conservatives should be able to see the importance bridges play to state commerce, safety, economic development and jobs.

What's more, the state's residents should support high standards, whether it comes to education, governing, or roads and bridges.

The state isn't hoeing this row alone. Lobbyists will soon descend on Congress to seek increases in federal highway repair money. The state investment in this lobbying is well worth it. Lobbying, as we all know, is one of the most powerful professions in the world, and Oregon deserves its fair share of the federal pie, plus that share of the pie that we have been shorted over the years.

It's easy to heave torpedoes from the sidelines at the state for spending taxpayer money — your money, as the TV newscasters always say. Sure, it's your money, and your investment along with that of the other 3 million Oregonians goes a long way, as a group, toward buying some fine infrastructure that will serve the state well for years to come.