WASHINGTON – The Minneapolis bridge disaster that suddenly is the symbol of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure could tip the scales in favor of billions of dollars in higher gasoline taxes for repairs coast to coast.
There are 500 bridges around the country similar to the Minneapolis span, and “these are potential deathtraps,” says Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
“We have to, as a Congress, grasp this problem. And yes, I would even suggest, fund this problem with a tax,” he says. “May the sky not fall on me.”
One-quarter of the nation’s bridges, including the one in Minneapolis, have been classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One-third of major roads are judged by federal transportation officials to be in poor or mediocre condition.
Beyond the human tragedy of the Minnesota bridge collapse lie some daunting numbers: The cost of the backlog of needed repairs to roads and bridges is now $461 billion. Road conditions are a factor in one-third of the 40,000 traffic fatalities every year.
There’s no evidence to suggest that the Mississippi River disaster was a direct result of federal underspending. But there is wide agreement that the bridge is symptomatic of a national problem that Congress and the White House will have to address.
“It’s a tragic wakeup call,” said Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “This is gut check time for members of Congress for what they are going to do at the federal level.”
Past action by Congress and the White House does not give rise to confidence.
The last six-year highway and transit bill finally passed in 2005, two years late and, at $286 billion, almost $90 billion short of the $375 billion that transportation advocates said was needed to keep U.S. infrastructure from further deterioration.
Young and other Transportation Committee leaders wanted to pay for the larger sum by indexing for inflation the fuel tax that keeps the National Highway Trust Fund in money. That would have raised the tax, at 18.3 cents a gallon since 1993, by about a nickel.
President Bush rejected what he said was a tax hike and insisted that Congress accept a far smaller highway budget.
According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study last year, indexing fuel taxes retroactively to 1993 would have boosted the tax to about 25 cents a gallon last year, raising an average of $20 billion annually.
The two-year delay in passing the measure caused havoc with state transportation planners, who had to defer new projects because they didn’t know how much would be available. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.
“This administration failed to support robust investment in surface transportation and the funding to accompany it,” said Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the Transportation Committee’s new chairman this year.
When the next highway bill comes up in 2009, Congress won’t settle for a “bargain basement” measure, Oberstar said.