Just one week after an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, Minn., taking at least five lives and plunging dozens of vehicles and their occupants into the Mississippi River, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, proposed a comprehensive program to repair the nation’s structurally deficient bridges.
Oberstar announced the plan Wednesday, Aug. 8, in Minneapolis after visiting the site of the bridge tragedy.
“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?”
The initiative has four main components:
1. It significantly improves bridge inspection requirements;
2. It provides dedicated funding;
3. It distributes funds based on public safety and need. It prohibits Congressional and Administration earmarks; and
4. It establishes a trust fund, modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, to provide a dedicated source of revenue for the repair, rehabilitation and replacement of structurally deficient bridges. Revenues deposited in this trust fund will be available for no other purpose.
“Chairman Oberstar is on the right track because the motorists and truckers will support a user fee that is not earmarked nor diverted from the bridges that are in dire need of repair and replacement,” Highway Users President and CEO Greg Cohen said.
The American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) also supports the initiative. Oberstar “displayed the political leadership and ‘can do’ attitude that are key to beginning the hard task of seriously addressing America’s national transportation system deficiencies,” said ARTBA President & CEO Pete Ruane. “The federal surface transportation investment program needs to change to meet the demands and challenges of this century, not the last one. We believe the Oberstar bridge proposal signals a necessary first step toward legislatively refocusing and reinvigorating it.
“The approach he has outlined is not Washington ‘business as usual.’ It is a strategic, targeted capital investment plan that has accountability and a defined national outcome—eliminating structurally deficient bridges on America’s most heavily traveled highways. He is proposing a ‘surgical strike’ approach that could be a model for the future.”
There are over 595,000 bridges in the Federal Highway Aid System, and inspection reports show that 26% of these bridges have structural deficiencies. “The state of Minnesota has 13,000 bridges; 1,135 are structurally deficient, and 451 are functionally obsolescent,” Oberstar said. “That is 12.2%; it is one of the lowest percentages in the country, but it underscores a serious problem with the state of Minnesota’s and with the nation’s bridges.”
Oberstar said a major reason why these bridges are not repaired, rehabilitated or replaced can be attributed to a “tombstone mentality” in the federal government and in the states. “We react to tragedy, when lives are lost, but we fail to take preemptive action that could prevent these tragic events,” he said.
Oberstar’s initiative addresses the need to repair, rehabilitate or replace the aging, failing bridges on the National Highway System (NHS). The NHS consists of the Eisenhower Interstate System, the Strategic Highway Military Network and additional major highways across the country. The NHS covers only 4.1% of total road mileage in the country, but it carries 45% of its traffic, in terms of vehicle miles traveled. NHS bridges carry more than 70% of the nation’s bridge traffic. The U.S. DOT lists 6,175 NHS bridges as structurally deficient; almost half of them (2,830) are on interstate highways.
Oberstar said addressing this issue will be the first order of business for his Committee when Congress returns in September. He will convene a hearing of the full Committee to look at the problem of structurally deficient bridges on September 5, and will immediately begin work to move his initiative through Congress.
“We cannot wait for another tragedy,” Oberstar said. “We must act, and act quickly.”
News of the proposal comes days after Oberstar introduced a bill that would make $250 million immediately available to the state of Minnesota to begin reconstructing the I-35W bridge. The House of Representatives approved the emergency legislation, which replenishes the fund that Congress established to help states deal with such emergencies. That emergency fund was depleted last April when a tanker truck caught fire on the Oakland Bay Bridge and caused a portion of that bridge to collapse.
In addition to authorizing funds for a new bridge, the bill will also provide additional funding for mass transit services in the Twin Cities to address the traffic congestion that will result from the bridge collapse.
The bill won passage by a unanimous vote. Oberstar said he was moved by the overwhelming support that he received from both parties. “I want to thank all of our colleagues for the dignity of this discussion tonight and for the support expressed for the people of Minnesota by the rest of the nation.”