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Mid-Atlantic Faces Daunting Bridge Repair Tab

Thu August 23, 2007 - National Edition
David Hunt

Mid-Atlantic states face a more daunting task than the rest of the nation, as 34 percent of the region’s highway bridges are in some need of repair, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Highway statistics for 2006 indicate that 34 percent of highway bridges in Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware were rated as either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Nationwide, 26 percent of such bridges were rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, and were in some need of repair.

At 5,582, Pennsylvania is home to more structurally deficient bridges than any state in the nation, according to federal highway statistics for 2006. That fact was not lost on Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, a Democrat, who pushed hard and won additional funding for road, bridge and mass transit improvements earlier this year.

Rich Kirkpatrick, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesman, said northeast states generally maintain an older network of roads and bridges, and face a more difficult, and expensive task in upgrading their bridges. Kirkpatrick said Rendell toured Pennsylvania over the past two years, standing on structurally deficient bridges as part of his drive to highlight the need for additional funding.

Kirkpatrick said Rendell earlier this year signed into law nearly $1 billion per year in additional state funding for transportation improvements, though road and bridge advocates said the package doesn’t go far enough.

Eyes Fixed on Washington

Still, a majority of funding for bridge repair originates from federal sources, so most are looking to Washington for leadership.

President Bush, responding to the Aug. 1 collapse of an I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., signed into law H.R. 3311, which provided $250 million in emergency funds to repair and reconstruct the bridge.

After visiting the site of the collapsed highway bridge in his home state, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, introduced a comprehensive national bridge plan to repair the nation’s structurally deficient bridges.

“One week ago, a routine commute after a day of work, school, or shopping turned to horror, shock, and tears,” Oberstar said. “Today, as the recovery effort continues, we ask ourselves if such a tragic failure can happen elsewhere. How many structurally deficient bridges are out there? What repairs are immediately needed?”

Oberstar’s legislation would create a national bridge plan to repair or replace aging bridges on the heavily traveled National Highway System. The NHS carries 70 percent of the nation’s bridge traffic.

The initiative:

• improves federal bridge inspection requirements;

• creates a dedicated funding source for NHS bridges;

• distributes funds based on public safety and need, prohibiting Congressional and Administration earmarks; and

• establishes a bridge reconstruction trust fund, modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, to provide a dedicated source of funding for repair, rehabilitation and replacement of structurally deficient bridges.

Oberstar said the bridge initiative will be the committee’s first order of business when it returns to session in September.

“We cannot wait for another tragedy,” Oberstar said. “We must act, and act quickly.”

Jim Berard, communications director of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said a federal gas tax increase is under consideration to pay for the national bridge plan, though the plan’s cost, at press time, was still being calculated by the committee.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) quickly applauded Rep. Oberstar for bringing forth the national bridge plan.

“We applaud Chairman Oberstar for his prompt action to improve public safety and public confidence in the stability of our nation’s bridges,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month indicated that the American people remain ahead of Congress when it comes to their desire to speed up additional road and bridge work.

“In the wake of the tragic Minneapolis, Minn., bridge collapse, the American public appears quite willing to authorize its elected representatives in Congress to spend over $100 billion to repair and rebuild bridges across the country,” according to Gallup Researcher Frank Newport. “A new Gallup Poll shows that Americans have paid close attention to news about the I-35W bridge collapse, consider it to be indicative of broader problems with the nation’s bridges rather than an isolated incident, and are personally worried about the safety of bridges over which they regularly travel.”

The poll, conducted Aug. 3 to 5 of this year, indicates 57 percent of Americans believe the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is indicative of serious problems with our bridge network. Further, 73 percent favor spending $100 billion to repair and rebuild the nation’s bridges, while just 22 percent said they were opposed to such a measure. The Gallup poll sampled the opinions of 1,012 American adults, providing a margin of error of 3 percent.

Nick Yaksich, director of global public policy of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM), said it is disheartening that it took a bridge collapse to focus the nation’s attention on the need for additional funding.

“We have been working on this issue for years,” Yaksich said. “It is unfortunate that it took a bridge collapse, and people dying, to capture the nation’s attention.”

Yasick also pointed out that the Federal Highway Trust Fund has experienced a “basic erosion of funding.”

Yasick said the federal gas tax — which serves as the lever for road and bridge funding — was last increased 14 years ago, in 1993.

“Infrastructure has been taken for granted for too long,” Yasick said.

The effect of stagnant gas taxes has caused the balance of the Federal Highway Trust Fund to be drawn down, raising some concern. The Office of Management and Budget projects the Federal Highway Trust Fund balance will reach a negative $200 million at some point in 2009. The Road Information Program a national better roads group, said that by law, Highway Trust Fund expenditures cannot exceed their income.

ARTBA Weighs In

Matt Jeanneret, ARTBA spokesman, called the bridge collapse in Minnesota “tragic.”

“What happened in Minnesota is tragic and a wake up call,” Jeanneret said. “The fact is, we’re relying on an aging system of roads and bridges that is carrying traffic volumes and traffic loads that it was never intended to carry. All that wear and tear is taking a toll.”

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) recognized a needs gap for existing roads and bridges of $19 billion per year, based on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2006 “Conditions and Performance” report.

Jeanneret added that fixing the problem will clearly require new revenue.

As part of next year’s debate on a new multi-year, federal highway reauthorization, ARTBA is recommending a federal gas tax increase of 10 cents per gallon beginning in 2010.

“This is going to be about political will,” Jeanneret said. “We think the issue should figure in upcoming Congressional races and the Presidential debates.”

Jeanneret also characterized politics as a contact sport, and said ARTBA “is taking the field.”

Earlier this year, ARTBA held a “fly in” event in Washington. The event allowed road and bridge contractors to meet with their Congressional delegations on the need for additional road and bridge funding.

Like the August Gallup poll, which indicated public support for more road and bridge projects, Jeanneret said ARTBA has, over the years, commissioned similar public opinion polls through Zogby International. He said those polls have consistently shown support for an increased gas tax to pay for more road and bridge improvements.

An ARTBA-commissioned poll from Zogby International in 2002 mirrored Gallup’s more recent data, which showed 50 percent of Americans agreed that economic growth was threatened by traffic congestion and that 69 percent agreed that the country was facing a transportation capacity crisis. At that time, 60 percent of Americans also said road and mass transit improvements should be a higher federal priority. The Zogby poll was conducted among 1,025 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.2 percent.

Funding under the current, multi-year highway authorization, SAFETEA-LU, was weighted more heavily toward non-road and bridge priorities. A 2005 analysis of SAFETEA-LU indicated that annual funding for the federal transit program would increase by 3.6 percent after adjusting for anticipated inflation, while the highway portion increased by just 1.8 percent.

That emphasis on transit has raised the ire of some conservatives.

“Too many American cities are spending far too much money on expensive rail transit projects, which are used for only 1 to 2 percent of local travel, and far too little on highway projects which are used for 95 to 99 percent of local travel,” said Randal O’Tolle, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute, in a previously published report.

Recognizing the role states play in providing matching funds for infrastructure improvements, Yasick, of AEM, said the bridge collapse should provide a wake up call for the nation’s governors. CEG

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