WASHINGTON - The House passed a sweeping national bridge initiative Thursday, advancing efforts by Minnesota Democrat Jim Oberstar to increase the proportion of federal dollars spent on the nation's most troubled bridges.
The $1 billion bridge reconstruction program -- Congress' first nationwide response to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis last summer -- would ensure that states beef up inspections and upgrade bridges that are deemed the most critical to safety.
The new federally mandated system has run into resistance from officials in Minnesota and elsewhere who say they are better positioned to decide which bridges are in the most urgent need of repair. Minnesota transportation officials say they have already begun to realign their bridge priorities in response to the bridge collapse.
"The concern is valid," said Brad Larsen, a federal relations manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "Some of the things the bill is asking for we're already doing. And we're likely to continue doing them whether or not the bill passes."
Oberstar's initiative, introduced after the bridge collapse, was overwhelmingly approved in the House, 367 to 55. The entire Minnesota delegation voted for the measure.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., indicated later Thursday that today she would introduce companion legislation in the Senate, where its prospects remain unclear. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman will co-sponsor it, his spokesman said.
Momentum in the House was generated in part by the upcoming Aug. 1 anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse. "A tragedy is a terrible thing to waste," said Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat whose district includes the 35W bridge.
The bill also picked up support from many Republicans concerned about pork-barrel spending. "It prioritizes these much-needed projects on merit, with no earmarks," said Minnesota Republican John Kline.
But differences over the bill still reflect competing federal and state priorities in tackling the nation's 72,000 structurally deficient bridges, which civil engineers say will need many billions of dollars more to repair.
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has criticized MnDOT for using only 51 percent of its allotted federal bridge program dollars over the past five years -- a rate that ties it for last with Arizona.
Oberstar noted acidly during the House debate that he has sometimes come under fire for earmarking federal dollars for pet bike path projects. At the same time, he said, Minnesota transportation officials have diverted millions of federal dollars that he helped allocate for substandard bridges.
"Then they complain that they don't have enough money to fix their most deficient bridges," he said.
Minnesota defends spending
But Minnesota transportation officials say the federal bridge funds are not an accurate reflection of the state's overall rate of investment in bridges, which they say is among the highest in the nation.
They say that replacement funds from the federal government's Highway Bridge Program are largely restricted to spans rated as structurally deficient under federal guidelines, and that they want the flexibility to use federal aid to fix or replace bridges before they deteriorate to that point.
In recent years, most state highway departments in the nation have transferred or diverted part of their federal bridge allocations to less restrictive accounts available for multiple purposes, including bridges. Officials in Minnesota say they have been able to spend nearly $400 million on bridge replacement and repair in the past five years, far in excess of the $185 million the state got from the federal bridge program.
Nevertheless, Larsen said MnDOT has already decided to use more federal bridge program dollars, partly because "it's become a public perception issue" not to.
Oberstar's bill would allow state officials to transfer bridge program funds only if they have no structurally deficient bridges eligible for replacement in their federal and national highway systems.
Said Oberstar: "We owe the victims and the survivors of that tragedy much more than a new bridge. We owe them new bridge policy that ensures that the traveling public is safe."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753