Minnesota's U.S. senators encouraged their colleagues to invest in national bridge safety, while Transportation Secretary Mary Peters defended her department.
Minnesota's two U.S. senators called for national investment in transportation infrastructure on Thursday during a hearing examining the condition of the nation's bridges.
Members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works -- on which both Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, and Norm Coleman, a Republican, sit -- applauded the two senators for their bipartisan call for action.
Disagreements arose over how to fund repair of the nation's tens of thousands of structurally deficient bridges.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters was on hand to answer questions, and she exchanged fiery words with committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., over the Bush administration's insistence that Congress prioritize infrastructure spending rather than raise taxes.
"If there is a way to fix infrastructure without money, I would like to know what that is," Boxer said. "To get money for Iraq, it's like that," she said, snapping her fingers for emphasis. "To get money for our infrastructure, for our people so they don't have to die on the roads? Oh, now we really have to just prioritize."
It is not underinvestment that led to poor ratings of the nation's bridges but failure to spend wisely, Peters said. She called on politicians to stop diverting funds meant to maintain roads to fund pet projects through what are known as earmarks.
Peters defended her department, saying it heeds warning signs from bridge data and takes appropriate action to prevent a catastrophe like the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge from reoccurring. Though more than 70,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient, she insisted that America's roads and bridges are safe, and that to say otherwise would be "irresponsible and inaccurate."
Klobuchar questioned Peters on what the department knew about the Minneapolis bridge's deficiencies before it went down. Peters told her that all prior data indicated the bridge was fine, and that it would take a year to be certain what caused 13 deaths and more than 100 injuries on what Coleman called "Eight-One."
Coleman said he and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., have asked the Government Accountability Office to review the national bridge program and measure the effectiveness in bridge maintenance.
"We need to maintain a bridge program that establishes the most fundamental element of our transportation network: safety," Coleman said.
Nina Petersen-Perlman 202-408-2723