Bridge collapse points to national problem
By Staff Writer, Stateline
At the time of the collapse Aug. 1, some lanes of the 40-year-old span of Interstate 35 over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis were closed while construction workers made surface repairs. But there were several flaws that in 1990 landed the 458-foot bridge over the Mississippi River on a list of "structurally deficient" structures compiled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
That rating means " significant load-carrying elements of the bridge are found to be in poor or worse condition" and "typically require significant maintenance and repair to remain in service." The designation does not mean a bridge is necessarily unsafe, according to the FHWA.
The cause of the collapse, which killed at least five motorists and injured nearly 80, is not yet known. At least 8 people still were reported missing. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) was quoted as saying the bridge had been inspected in both 2005 and 2006 and was not slated to be replaced until 2020. Pawlenty now has ordered a statewide inspection of all bridges with a similar design, although it is not known how many other similar bridges there are, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune .
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters also called on states to immediately inspect any steel deck truss bridges similar to the I-35 structure.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R), in an interview on MSNBC's Hardball Thursday (Aug. 2), predicted that every governor now would order similar inspections for all major infrastructure.
The tragedy highlights a nationwide problem of deteriorating bridges — as well as roads — that states and the federal government are struggling to maintain in the face of fast-rising costs of construction and the shrinking value of gasoline taxes.
More than 26 percent of the nation's bridges were rated either structurally deficient, meaning the Minnesota bridge and more than 73,000 others were in need of major repairs, or "functionally obsolete," a group of 79,427 bridges deemed no longer adequate for the amount of traffic they carry. It would cost an estimated $9.4 billion a year for 20 years to bring all of the existing bridges up to date, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In fact, Minnesota's bridges fare well when compared with the rest of the states: 12 percent of the state's bridges were rated deficient or obsolete, according to 2006 FHWA data. Only Arizona has a smaller percentage of bridges needing major repairs.
Oklahoma has the highest percentage of bridges rated structurally deficient — 27 percent. More than half of the bridges in Rhode Island and Massachusetts were rated either deficient or obsolete, according to the federal figures.
Bridges are just one piece of the transportation network strained by long-term neglect, a steady increase in the number of drivers, a stagnant source of funding and rampant inflation of road-building costs, according to a March 2007 study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
The biggest hurdle to improving roads is that federal gasoline taxes, which pay for more than 45 percent of the nation's transportation infrastructure, have not been raised since 1993 and are not even sufficient to cover the spending in the 2005 federal transportation law. While gasoline prices have skyrocketed to more than $3 a gallon, federal taxes to support road work have not because the 18.4-cent federal tax is added on each gallon — not each dollar — of gas sold. Federal gas taxes will fall $11 billion short of planned road projects by 2009, but the gap could be as big as $19 billion the following year, AASHTO found.
A longer-term problem is that the cost of building and fixing roads has grown rapidly in recent years. Between the last gas-tax hike in 1993 and 2015, construction costs will have increased by more than 70 percent, according to AASHTO. Federal gas taxes would have to go up at least 3 cents by 2009 and 7 cents more by 2015 just to maintain the current highway system and keep pace with the fast-rising cost of roads, the association estimates.
Instead of raising the federal gasoline tax, U.S. Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced a bill, just hours before the Minnesota bridge catastrophe, to create an independent national bank to provide government financing for major infrastructure projects.
Some states have been willing to raise taxes for road construction. Fifteen states have hiked fees at the pump since 1997, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.
But in the face of high gasoline prices, Minnesota's Pawlenty vetoed a $5 billion transportation package this year that would have been financed in part with a 5-cent hike in the state's 22-cent gas tax, last raised in 1988. In 2006 voters passed a ballot initiative to dedicate increased vehicle registration fees for transportation projects.
Pennsylvania, with one of the highest percentages of structurally deficient bridges, increased money for bridge repairs from $250 million to $600 million last year, Gov. Ed Rendell (D) told Stateline.org Aug. 2 at the opening of the annual Capitolbeat conference for statehouse reporters and editors. "Despite that, we can barely make a dent in bridge repair. To repair all 5,900 bridges would cost $8 billion," he said.
Noting that economic competitors such as Japan and Germany have undertaken massive infrastructure repairs, Rendell said the U.S. government also should invest in a massive repair program that states would have to help support to fix bridges and roads but also water and sewage infrastructure.
This year, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) vetoed a $19 million increase in transportation funding that would have been paid for with a 1.8-cent increase in that state's 28-cent gas tax. Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) both worked to scuttle bills to increase gas taxes for road construction.
Ridge told Hardball : " There's not a governor and state legislature on an annual basis that doesn't go through the political torment and anguish every year about how to pay for these things. Everybody knows there's a need and everybody is kind of reluctant to raise taxes."