$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.
But the gas-tax proposal has run into fierce resistance from the Bush administration, as well as from many congressional Republicans and some Democrats.
The idea of a gas tax increase also has failed to catch on with Minnesota's U.S. senators. Norm Coleman, a Republican, has echoed Bush's call for a federal review of how the states and Congress use existing road and bridge dollars. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, has signed on to a $50 billion borrowing plan using federal bonds. She also favors paying for new transportation initiatives by repealing income tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
It's 'a beginning'
With no consensus on how to pay for a massive new federal bridge program, the Senate's 88-7 vote on Wednesday forges ahead with a more modest billion-dollar bridge initiative, which represents a 25 percent increase in bridge funding over the next year.
"I look at it as a beginning," Klobuchar said. "Rather than wait for the whole hearing process to work its way through, we did something right away."
For Coleman, voting for the extra bridge money meant breaking with his party. One Republican, Christopher Bond of Missouri, warned that lawmakers "should not overreact to the Minnesota bridge collapse."
Said LeRoy Coleman, a spokesman for Sen. Coleman: "Senator Coleman has long-standing concerns over the state of our national bridge infrastructure, and it is his hope that the funding provided in this appropriations bill will begin to address these needs."
Divisions over bridge funding presage a larger budget battle in the coming weeks, as the Senate finishes work on 12 annual appropriation bills, many of which face Bush veto threats over funding levels.
Davis and other analysts say one reason transportation was among the first spending bills the Senate passed this month is because it historically has been one of the most bipartisan.
Now, after the fall of the I-35W bridge, the massive infusion of cash needed for a national bridge program has been elevated to a major budget battleground.
But even as Bush and some Senate Republicans opposed the additional bridge spending, White House officials say they remain committed to funding the replacement of the I-35W bridge. "The president recognizes how important the I-35 bridge is to the state of Minnesota," said White House spokesman Alex Conant.
Staff writer Pat Doyle contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz 202.408.2753
Proposals to help I-35W commuters meet stiff resistance from residents and businesses north of the bridge. B7
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