Fix roads and bridges or expect the worst, senator says

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 6/13/2013

Sen. Patty Murray says the U.S. can expect more disasters like the recent collapse of a bridge on Interstate 5 in her home state of Washington unless Congress takes bold steps to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

Murray, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, held a hearing Thursday, June 13, to discuss crumbling infrastructure.

Murray and Ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine discussed the collapse of a 160-foot section of the Skagit River Bridge that occurred May 23 after a permitted truck hauling an oversized load struck overhead bridge supports.

“Unfortunately, this is the kind of disaster we can expect to happen more often when our roads and bridges fall into disrepair,” Murray said.

She added that the local economy, small businesses and livelihoods of families have been seriously disrupted because of the bridge collapse. The bridge carried 71,000 vehicles per day.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, who testified at the request of Murray and Collins, said the temporary fix for the Skagit River Bridge would be in place by June 20 and carry two lanes in each direction. A permanent bridge will be built next to the remaining existing structure.

Murray announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation is releasing more emergency funds for the project following the quick release of $1 million to make the temporary fixes.

Collins pointed out that the Highway Trust Fund collected $40 billion last year and spent $50 billion. The Congressional Budget Office says the fund will be insolvent in 2015 at that pace and face nearly a $100 billion shortfall by 2020.

Murray and Collins asked the panel – which included U.S. DOT Undersecretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg, and Government Accountability Office Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues Phillip Herr – for ideas about funding infrastructure in the future.

Herr mentioned a possible tax on vehicle miles traveled, known as a VMT tax, but said issues about protecting privacy make it less appealing to the public. He also mentioned tolling, saying the public understands the concept of a toll to get across a bridge.

Trottenberg said the Obama administration has succeeded with federal transportation grants and a recently expanded loan program called TIFIA, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act. The president has called for a federal infrastructure bank, but that has not come to fruition.

Murray and Collins said the status quo on infrastructure spending stifles economic growth.

“Roads are going to need to be fixed eventually, bridges will need to be strengthened before they collapse, and waiting will only make the work more expensive and more difficult when we eventually do it,” Murray said.

“When a bridge deteriorates, at some point it is no longer safe for heavier traffic such as emergency vehicles or large trucks. Eventually, it has to be closed to traffic altogether.”

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