Millions in federal money strictly for bridge repair is often rescinded for funds that can be used for other projects.
WASHINGTON - As they ponder a major infusion of cash for ailing bridges following the Interstate 35W collapse in Minneapolis, members of Congress have pointed out that states already have access to tens of millions of dollars for that purpose -- and they often send it back.
Created in 1978, 10 years after a bridge collapsed over the Ohio River, killing 46 people, the federal Highway Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement Program largely restricts spending to bridges classified as deficient or obsolete.
But some transportation advocates say that when given choices on how to take budget cuts, states often forgo those federal dollars in favor of other money for road and bridge projects of their choosing.
Government records show that Minnesota transportation officials have passed up more than $60 million in federal aid for substandard bridges since 2003, choosing instead to take federal dollars that could be spent on the state's road and bridge priorities.
That came on top of $41 million that state officials transferred out of the federal bridge fund over the past five years.
"They say they need the flexibility," said former Delaware Transportation Secretary Anne Canby, president of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership.
"Well, the point is the federal government is sending this money for a purpose, and it's not being used."
But state transportation officials say the money transfers merely reflect local bridge engineers' decisions about which bridges to repair or replace, and that they do not affect the overall amount of money spent on bridges in Minnesota.
Assistant Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Bob McFarlin, testifying before Congress last month, noted that during the same period, the state received only $160 million from the main federal bridge aid program -- less than half of what the state spent on bridges.
"Minnesota has been able to do that by choosing to spend more flexible federal system funds on bridges," he said.
The funding shifts show a disagreement between St. Paul and Washington over where best to direct federal dollars to keep up nearly 1,800 bridges in the state classified as deficient or obsolete in some way.
Money from the federal program could have been used to repair, but not replace, the 35W span that fell Aug. 1. Minnesota officials say that federal rules restricting funds to bridges below a certain condition rating prevent them from spending the money on more heavily trafficked spans, such as the Wakota Bridge that takes I-494 over the Mississippi River.
If Congress acts on a proposal to force states to use the money as restricted, "we would be forced to let some bridges decline," said Abby McKenzie, MnDOT's director of investment management.
'They had to cut somewhere'
The debate turns on a routine practice known as "rescission," in which states must reconcile a yearly gap between the promised transportation funding and the lower amount that's actually delivered. Congress leaves it up to the states to decide where to cut.
This year, Congress rescinded a near-record $3.47 billion in promised transportation dollars. Nationwide, state officials chose to take more than a $1 billion -- almost a third -- out of bridge funds.
Minnesota, faced with a $69.4 million rescission this year, took $16.3 million of it -- 23 percent -- in bridge funds. Since 2003, the state has rescinded a total of $62.9 million out of the bridge account, or more than 40 percent of all the rescissions it made over that period.
"I don't know how they can explain it," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn. "They had to cut somewhere, and Minnesota chose to cut money out of the bridge program."
Officials in the administration of Gov. Tim Pawlenty argue that they are merely trying to cope with bureaucratic obstacles and budget shortfalls dictated by Washington.
The rescissions, they note, represent dollars allocated to the states but not actually spent by Congress, rather than money returned to the federal treasury.
"It's monopoly money," said Brad Larsen, federal relations manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "It's not real money."
Some transportation analysts say the bridge money could be real if MnDOT and other state road bureaucracies elected to rescind other money, such as highway funds, which are rarely sacrificed.
"It does say something about where their priorities are," said Jeff Davis, the editor and publisher of Transportation Weekly, which tracks national transportation policy.
MnDOT officials say the federal bridge program dollars do not give a full picture of the state's overall spending on bridges. Of the $390 million on bridges since 2003, about $120 million came from the Highway Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement Program.
While another $40 million was transferred out of the program, much more was taken from other accounts and put into bridges, permitting state officials to spend $390 million.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said she welcomes the flexibility, as long as states can show that they meet national standards for bridge maintenance.
Peters and other Bush administration figures oppose Oberstar's proposal to raise the federal gas tax by 5 cents, arguing that existing funds could be used better. But the place to look, they suggest, is in congressional earmarks and other specialized funds, not in transfers of bridge money between various state accounts.
Despite Minnesota's rescissions and transfers, the state ranks fourth lowest in the percentage of bridges rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. About 800 substandard Minnesota bridges qualify for repair or replacement under the federal program.
But MnDOT officials say they fund all of the bridge requests they get from their district engineers, without regard for which pot the money comes from. The bridges that make to the top of the state priority list -- like the Wakota -- are not necessarily those that fall below the rating required to qualify for federal bridge program dollars.
"We often times replace our bridges before they get to that point," McKenzie said. "That's why we rescind bridge apportionment, because it leaves the most flexible categories available to us to replace bridges when our bridge engineers think they need to be replaced."
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