Rep. Jim Oberstar proposes funding repairs with a temporary tax hike; Republicans prefer to reexamine how existing funds are spent.
WASHINGTON - Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar clashed with Bush administration officials Wednesday over his proposal for a temporary federal gasoline tax increase to upgrade bridges in the aftermath of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
"We can't have a bake sale to fix bridges," said Oberstar, in his first high-profile appearance as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is looking into bridge safety after last month's deadly collapse.
But Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who has made four visits to the crumpled span, rejected the idea of a gas tax increase.
"Increasing federal taxes and spending would likely do little, if anything, to address either the quality or performance of our roads," she said. Echoing President Bush, Peters instead called for better use of existing funds, supplemented by tolls and other sources for new road dollars.
The exchange highlighted political differences that have emerged since the Aug. 1 tragedy, which killed 13 people and injured 144. While Oberstar and other Democrats have faulted the administration for underfunding the nation's road infrastructure, the White House has criticized Congress for diverting money from basic transportation needs to pet projects earmarked for certain districts.
Supporting Oberstar's temporary 5-cent gas tax increase was Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who called the 35W bridge failure "not an act of God [but] a failure of man."
Oberstar's proposed legislation would establish a $25 billion trust fund to fix or replace 6,175 of the most deficient bridges in the National Highway System.
More than 73,000 bridges in the country are rated structurally deficient, meaning that they are in need of attention, though not necessarily unsafe. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, government at all levels would have to spend more than $65 billion to repair all existing bridge deficiencies.
"We have an opportunity to do something, and I'm not going to let this opportunity pass," Oberstar said.
Republicans on the panel agreed that roads and bridges have suffered neglect, but parted ways with Oberstar on increasing the federal gasoline tax, which is now 18.4 cents a gallon.
Instead, Republicans called for a plan to reexamine how the government pays for infrastructure needs.
"We need to look at the overall plan, not just the tragedy du jour," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. "People in southern Florida are already hurting with $3-a-gallon gas."
The White House and some congressional Republicans have talked about redirecting existing federal dollars from specialized transportation funds, earmarks, state transfers and other mechanisms that they say have diverted the money from where it's most needed.
"Not only is the infrastructure broken, but the system for financing the infrastructure is also broken," said Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the committee.
The tax increase proposal is not an easy sell, even among Minnesota Democrats. Freshman Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Transportation Committee, has taken no position. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said Wednesday that he prefers "better focusing existing funds," while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has suggested bonding or rolling back tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
Administration officials favor increasing funding through electronic tolls or "congestion pricing," which encourages motorists to drive less or during off-peak hours.
But some Democrats say special toll lanes are not the solution. "We're not going to price Americans off the road," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
Robert McFarlin, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), told the committee that it is too early to make specific policy recommendations based on the 35W bridge collapse, since its cause is still unknown.
At the hearing, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said that some NTSB investigators are likely to work at the collapse site until at least November, "or however long it takes for the critical bridge components to be recovered."
Rosenker said there is still "considerable work remaining for us to determine why it collapsed" because much of the bridge superstructure is underwater. Still submerged, for example, are certain gusset plates that the NTSB previously identified as important to the investigation.
The flat steel gusset plates held the bridge's steel beams together. Rosenker said Wednesday that a failure in just one of the plates could have had catastrophic consequences. The plates were part of a bridge design more than 40 years old that is now obsolete because it included no redundancies against a collapse.
Investigators have confirmed damage in some gusset plates, but have not determined if the failures contributed to the collapse or resulted from the collapse.
Rosenker also said the latest calculations by the NTSB indicate that 190 people and 110 vehicles were involved in the accident.
Staff writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report.
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