Gov. Rendell took the reins of the National Governors Association yesterday with a call for the group to push for investment in the repair and improvement of the nation's roads, bridges and railways.

One of the biggest challenges, he warned, would be to overcome "incredible public skepticism and cynicism" about spending on infrastructure. To milions of Americans it has become a "pork-barrel process" that results in projects like the now-infamous Alaskan "bridge to nowhere."

Without a dramatic increase in spending on infrastructure, Rendell said, the United States risks becoming a third-rate economic power within 50 years.

"It is not the sexiest of issues, but in many ways it's as important as any single thing we can do," Rendell said, making his debut as chairman during the closing session of the organization's summer meeting in Philadelphia.

The association, made up of 55 governors of the states as well as U.S. territories, has often been influential in moving national policy.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated it would take $1.6 trillion to bring U.S. bridges and roads alone up to top condition. Rendell told fellow governors that his cabinet recently estimated it would cost $80 billion to repair Pennsylvania's transporation and water/sewer infrastructures.

In 1961, as President Dwight Eisenhower left office, the federal government was spending 11.5 percent of its domestic, nonmilitary budget on infrastructure. Now it spends about 2.5 percent, leaving states to come up with most of the money.

In addition to getting more federal funding, the governors association should study actions states can take to raise funds, such as imposing tolls, Rendell said.

The problem will get only more expensive, he warned, noting that in Pennsylvania, road-building costs alone have risen 34 percent in the last three years due to higher prices for concrete and steel.

"Now is the time, especially with interest rates being low, when we can repair this nation's infrastructure for significantly less than it's going to cost five or 10 years down the road," Rendell said.

The governors association - described by former President Bill Clinton, himself a former governor, as the "center of wonkdom" - met from Friday to midday yesterday in the city. Sessions were dominated by serious policy talk about the nation's energy crisis, and there was lighter political chatter as well, because several governors are considered potential running mates for Barack Obama or John McCain.

Rendell made reference to the latter as he ribbed Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican said to be on McCain's radar screen, about her behavior at a party for attendees Sunday night.

"Gov. Palin was the first governor to dance, and the only governor to do the Electric Slide, thereby scratching herself from the McCain" ticket, Rendell joked.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.