$195 million to replace the I-35W bridge is safe despite an expected long debate over federal transportation spending.
WASHINGTON - Call it a partial down payment to keep more of America's aging bridges from falling down.
The Senate on Wednesday approved spending $1 billion to speed repair of substandard bridges across the nation, as well as $195 million to replace the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
The funding comes six weeks after the I-35W bridge tragedy and represents one of the first major domestic spending initiatives Congress has taken up since its return from summer recess.
Congress has set a faster pace on fixing Minnesota's woes than has the state itself. The Minnesota Legislature concluded a special session in the pre-dawn hours on Wednesday that passed disaster relief for recent floods, but nothing for the state's hundreds of deficient bridges. Political dickering over how much to do, when to do it and how to pay for it brought state bridge negotiations to an impasse.
A similar fate may yet await the Senate bill, which now falls into the lap of congressional negotiators and a White House locked in a much broader fight over federal spending -- one that has some Senate staffers whispering privately about the possibility of a government shutdown this fall.
Even if it doesn't get whittled down, the extra $1 billion would barely make a dent in the $65 billion nationwide backlog of bridge repairs identified by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"It is by no means a panacea," said Jeff Davis, editor and publisher of Transportation Weekly, which tracks federal transportation spending. "It won't make a dent in the bridge backlog. But it's real money going to bridges, and it's needed."
The bridge initiative is part of a $104.6 billion measure to fund transportation and housing programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
Bill is over Bush's target
That's about $4 billion over President' Bush's "top line" for spending, enough to spark a veto threat. Because Bush cannot veto individual items, his rejection of the bill would also take down the funding needed to start I-35W reconstruction.
Before any bill reaches the president's desk, the Senate measure must be reconciled with a leaner House transportation bill that passed before the Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis - and doesn't have the extra bridge funding.
Political analysts say that the I-35W bridge money is still a sure thing. The sum was set aside by Congress two days after the accident, and has the support of President Bush, who stood on the banks of the Mississippi River to inspect the crumpled span.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said on Wednesday that a delay in federal funding might force the Minnesota Department of Transportation to dip into federal funds appropriated for other projects in order to jump-start bridge construction before winter.
But the federal I-35W money and the additional $1 billion bridge appropriation -- which would provide a minimum $6 million share for Minnesota -- are likely to be tied up for weeks in protracted debate over how to pay for an emerging national problem: 74,000 aging and deteriorating bridges, like the I-35W bridge, are rated "structurally deficient."
Oberstar sees national will
"The tragedy of the I-35W bridge collapse has created a national consensus in favor of dealing with this problem quickly, with an effective program that ensures that our bridges are sound," said Minnesota's Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
But while Oberstar praised the Senate's $1 billion bridge measure Wednesday, he said "much more is needed."
Oberstar is preparing legislation for a temporary 5-cents-per-gallon increase in the federal gas tax that would raise $25 billion over three years.