Backers say federal bill offers needed flexibility, but some question priorities.
WASHINGTON -- As the fifth anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse nears, the latest federal highway bill has lawmakers and advocates debating the funding commitment needed to shore up Minnesota's aging transportation infrastructure.
The bill, which President Obama plans to sign into law Friday, will give Minnesota more flexibility in how to use $700 million in federal transportation funds over the next two years.
But without a firm commitment to federal maintenance and repair, the state's hundreds of structurally deficient bridges could remain neglected, said former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democrat who headed the House Transportation Committee before he lost his seat in 2010. "Safety tends to slip without rigorous oversight," Oberstar said.
Since the August 2007 collapse of the eight-lane, steel-truss 35W bridge, which killed 13 and injured 145, transportation experts have warned that infrastructure spending was headed in the wrong direction.
Republican Rep. Chip Cra-vaack, who unseated Oberstar and now sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill represents a needed departure from past practice, when regulations forced state transportation leaders to spend money on sometimes questionable projects.
"States should have more of a say about whether they choose to fund bike paths and highway flower plantings with the user fees motorists pay at the pump or whether repairing bridges and roads is more of a priority for them," he said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee, cheered the legislation and the elimination of congressional earmarks, which have brought the state about $150 million in additional transportation dollars since 2010. The earmark process, Gimse said, picked "transportation project winners and losers."
Righting road spending
Margaret Donahoe, executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, called the new funding method "a positive step forward."
"With fewer programs and more flexibility, Minnesota can direct more of the dollars to priorities in our state," Donahoe said.
But David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, said the outcome will be more money spent on new highway projects while bridge maintenance and repair are bypassed.
Advocates of alternative transportation, such as bikes and mass transit, also say the flexibility came at a cost. Goldberg said the resulting bill rolls back or freezes funding for bike lanes and transit.
"What we saw here was some very good policy stripped from the Senate bill," said Barb Thoman, executive director for Transit for Livable Communities, a St. Paul advocacy group.
Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say bridge safety remains a top priority.
"In Minnesota, we take bridges very seriously," said MnDOT communications director Kevin Gutknecht.
The state still has more than 300 bridges that are structurally deficient, according to the most recent Federal Highway Administration data.
Gutknecht said reports on bridge integrity often fail, however, to distinguish what level of government -- federal, state, county or municipal -- is responsible for ensuring safety.
"We're taking care of the issues that need to be taken care of," he said.
At the center of the struggle over how best to use transportation dollars is the federal Highway Trust Fund. Financed by an 18.4 cent-per-gallon tax on retail gasoline that hasn't gone up since 1993, the fund could be empty by 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
In 2008, Minnesota raised its gas tax for the first time in two decades to fund road and bridge repair.
But in Congress, the debate over raising the federal gas tax rages on.
Oberstar championed a gasoline tax increase in 2009 as part of a $450 billion national transportation overhaul, but the legislation stalled.
Cravaack, many in Congress and President Obama have been reluctant to raise fuel costs for Americans. While they search for a long-term solution to repairing the nation's aging infrastructure, Congress has turned to short-term fixes, borrowing $20 billion from the U.S. Treasury to complete last week's deal.
The approach has prevented a long-term focus on bridge safety, Oberstar said.
"With that mind-set, you're safe until the next accident," he said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @StribMitchell