Oberstar calls for national bridge trust fund

| 8/8/2007

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, has announced he will file legislation to dedicate more federal funding to repair, rehabilitate and replace deficient bridges on the National Highway System.

In a press release, Oberstar said he hopes to accomplish this through the creation of a national bridge trust fund modeled after the Highway Trust Fund. The new plan was announced Wednesday, Aug. 8, at the Lock and Dam Visitors Center in Minneapolis, not far from where the deadly Interstate 35 bridge collapse took place one week earlier.

President Bush recently signed a separate emergency bill offered by Oberstar to dedicate $250 million to replacing the I-35 bridge.

Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his first order of business when Congress resumes Sept. 5 will be to call a hearing about the nation's 73,784 bridges deemed by the U.S. Department of Transportation as structurally deficient.

Oberstar said lawmakers need to act quickly, given the severity of the collapse in Minneapolis that killed at least five and injured 79. Eight people were still unaccounted for in the rubble or in the Mississippi River.

"We cannot wait for another tragedy," Oberstar stated in a press release. "We must act, and act quickly."

Oberstar's plan for the nation's bridges is four-fold:

  • To significantly improve bridge inspection requirements;
  • To provide dedicated funding;
  • To distribute funds based on public safety and need, while prohibiting Congressional and administration earmarks; and
  • To establish a trust fund, modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, to provide revenue for repair, rehabilitation and replacement of structurally deficient bridges.

Oberstar promised that deposited funds will be available for no other purpose than bridges on the National Highway System, consisting of interstates, strategic military routes and other major highways.

"One-half of all bridges in the United States were built before 1964," Oberstar stated.

The revenue stream and how much the plan will cost will be calculated from a pending cost study by the Federal Highways Administration, he said.

Oberstar is suggesting a temporary user fee on gasoline and diesel, and/or a tax by the barrel on oil imported into the U.S.

As of 2006, federal, state, county and local governments were operating and maintaining 597,340 bridges in the U.S., from superstructures like the Golden Gate Bridge down to the smallest one-lane bridges over country creeks.

Of that number, 73,784 - about 12.4 percent - have been deemed structurally deficient by the U.S. DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The bureau reported that the percentage of deficient bridges has dropped by almost half since 1990, when 137,865 of the nation's of 572,205 bridges - or 24.1 percent - were found to be structurally deficient.

Structural deficiencies are classified by DOT as major deterioration, cracks, flaws or damage caused by a number of factors including weather, traffic, drainage, debris and decay.

The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes an annual report card evaluating the nation's bridges.

"ASCE estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure to good condition," the group stated on its web site. Click here to read more.

Some regions and states have more bridges and more structurally deficient bridges than others.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported that Oklahoma has the most structurally deficient bridges, 6,299 or 27 percent of its total, 23,460.

Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Iowa, South Dakota, Mississippi and Missouri have between 19 percent and 25 percent of their bridges classified as structurally deficient.

Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Delaware and Texas have 4 percent or fewer of their bridges classified as structurally deficient.

- By David Tanner, staff writer