Gov. Rendell wants to place tolls on I-80.

Gov. Corzine wants to raise tolls drastically.

And now a federal commission has recommended raising the federal gas tax by as much as 40 cents per gallon over five years.

These unpopular proposals have a common ancestry - the federal and state governments have been shortchanging transportation needs for years. The longer that highways, bridges and mass transit are neglected, the worse the consequences will be for traffic, delays and accidents.

Right now, Americans waste more than 3 billion hours per year stuck in traffic.

Yet Rendell's plan to raise money for highways and transit is in jeopardy. Corzine's proposal to raise tolls for permanent transportation funding was met with scorn. And lawmakers in Congress flatly predict that a hike in the federal gas tax is dead on arrival.

There has to be a solution to the nation's transportation needs besides simply saying "no." If toll hikes are not the answer, then raising the gas tax remains one of the few sensible alternatives - even considering the high cost of gasoline.

A higher gas tax is also good public policy. It compels automakers and consumers to switch to higher-mileage alternatives and more efficient technologies that are the core of a more sensible energy policy. And the revenue provides the funding to fix a growing backlog of deteriorating roads, bridges and rails.

The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents. Only three states have lower gas taxes than New Jersey's 14.5 cents-per-gallon levy, which hasn't increased since 1988. Pennsylvania's gas taxes are 32.3 cents per gallon.

A two-year study by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission said the nation could no longer apply patches to the system. The 12-member commission - created by Congress in 2005 to examine transportation needs - said the country risked tens of thousands of highway casualties annually and millions in lost economic growth.

One of the strongest dissenters was Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who opposes increasing the gas tax. One of her assistants, Tyler Duvall, said a gas tax was an "inefficient way of targeting resources," compared with tolls.

Perhaps the public would be more willing to consider higher gas taxes, or higher tolls, if Congress weren't routinely wasting tax dollars on transportation projects. The six-year highway bill approved in 2005, at a cost of $286 billion, included more than 6,000 earmarks.

Those pork-barrel projects included $6 million for graffiti elimination in New York, $2.4 million for a wildlife refuge in Louisiana, and $2.3 million for a highway beautification program in California.

And don't forget that $200-plus-million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. Even though the bridge was eventually scrapped, the money stayed in the bill.

Earmarks accounted for about 9 percent of total spending in the last federal highway bill. Often, the projects that get funded are not those most needed, but those with the most political support.

Unless government acts soon, the United States will be at a competitive disadvantage, and the public will be in more danger.