Our bridges: To do nothing will cost more

  • Article by: EMILY KAISER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 31, 2008 - 11:54 PM

While Congress responded quickly to help rebuild the 35W bridge, it has yet to find the answers -- or the $140 billion needed to make repairs and upgrades nationwide -- to address the problem of an aging infrastructure laid bare by the collapse of the 40-year-old span.

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A rescue worker stood ready while another prepared to search a submerged vehicle after the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis spanning the Mississippi River collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON

It was a year ago today that the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, stunning a nation that had long taken its vaunted highway system for granted.

"A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down," said Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who rushed to the scene along with a host of federal investigators and politicians.

While Congress quickly rose to the challenge of helping to replace the 40-year-old span, it has yet to find the answers -- or the money -- to address a critical national infrastructure problem laid bare by the disaster.

One in four bridges is in need of repair in the United States, and at least $140 billion is needed to make major repairs and upgrades, according to a recent report by state transportation officials from across the country.

The response from Congress so far: A House bill passed last week dedicating $1 billion for bridge maintenance and inspections -- no action yet from the Senate, although there has been no shortage of proposals.

Congress also is embarking on legislation to succeed the last major roads bill, passed in 2005; some say the result could be the most important overhaul of the transportation system since the dawn of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Already, it seems clear that the biggest challenge, and center of debate, will be finding the money to pay for new investments.

Adding to the challenge: As the debate begins, the primary source for federal road dollars -- the Highway Trust Fund -- is nearly depleted, with demand for its money stretched and the gas-tax revenue that feeds it expected to decline because of rising prices and lower consumption.

That has left Washington policymakers straddling a fork in the road, with the outgoing Bush administration pushing for a greater reliance on tolls and public-private partnerships, and congressional Democrats casting for new ways to replenish their traditional sources of road dollars.

A central player in the transportation debate is Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar, who as chairman of the House Transportation Committee will shepherd the bill that succeeds the 2005 legislation, which is to expire in September 2009.

"We may be 20 years late in doing what needed to be done in public transportation," Oberstar said recently, "but I think we are just in time."

A bipartisan federal commission, appointed by the president and members of Congress, has recommended that transportation spending from all sources -- federal, state and private -- more than double, to at least $225 billion annually for 50 years, more than $11 trillion in all.

Jack Schenendorf, the panel's vice chairman, said a comprehensive bill will have to boost funding for infrastructure while also spurring new approaches, such as toll roads, congestion pricing and mass transit.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell visited the Twin Cities as members of a national infrastructure advocacy group.

Said Rendell: "Unless we reinvest now, we won't be the greatest country in the world. We can't sustain it. ... The world is changing."

Others, however, say the problem isn't too little money but the need for more strategic and responsible use of existing resources.

MORE CONGESTION

"We were blessed these last 40 years by having a system that was new with excess capacity," Schenendorf said. "We saw the benefits of what a good transportation system can help do to build America."

But as population grows, so does congestion. And with the U.S. population estimated to reach 420 million by 2050, bottlenecks are projected to get worse.

So policymakers must balance upkeep of infrastructure with new projects serving the nation's growing needs.

Mass transit, including bus, light-rail and high-speed passenger rail, will be part of the next big road bill.

And Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who is on the Transportation Committee with Oberstar, said infrastructure safety should be a top priority.

The I-35W bridge collapse and the recent Winona bridge closure are two examples of what is happening across the country, he said.

The surface transportation commission proposed a variety of funding options, including a 40-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax phased in over five years.

Bush administration representatives on the commission, including Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, dissented from its conclusions.

Oberstar has long supported increasing the federal levy but has faced stiff resistance from those who call for an increase in state responsibility for transportation funding, saying it would help curb pork barrel spending.

The 2005 bill not only has provided billions for transportation but also has been widely derided for pork, symbolized by the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., for one, argues that transportation funding must be reformed before taxpayers fork over more money. In 2006, Minnesota got back only 89 cents of every dollar contributed to the Highway Trust Fund, partly because of excessive earmarks in other states, Bachmann said.

The fund "is riddled with abuses and inequities," she said. "The issue is not a revenue problem; it is a spending problem and an abuse problem."

Rick Geddes, one of three commission members who voted against its recommendations, said the gas tax method of funding transportation is "failing" because of a convoluted distribution system and more than 6,300 earmarks in the 2005 bill. Geddes argues that state and local officials, not Congress, are "best equipped to understand their own congestion problems and deal with those."

OTHER FUNDING OPTIONS

Many observers think an increased use of tolling and congestion pricing could also provide major funding and more efficient utilization, by requiring drivers to pay top dollar during peak times, said David Levinson of the University of Minnesota's civil engineering department.

"We don't charge people for using a particular road for a particular time, and as a consequence we get overuse," he said. "We get a situation where roads are underpriced and we get congestion."

But whichever way the nation goes, Schenendorf said it doesn't have a lot of choices. "If we don't do anything, the cost to Americans is going to be enormous," he said.

Emily Kaiser • 202-408-2723

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