Bridge over troubled politics

A 40-year-old highway bridge suddenly dropped into a major American river during the afternoon rush hour, with deadly results.

New bridge inspections were ordered, Congress held hearings, and bold federal programs were begun.

It was 1967 — the same year work near downtown Minneapolis was completed on the I-35W bridge, which dropped just as precipitously into the Mississippi River a month ago, sparking a fresh round of national soul-searching on bridge safety.

Now Minnesota’s Rep. Jim Oberstar, the Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee, is determined to see an end to the historical comparisons with the Silver Bridge disaster on the Ohio River four decades ago.

On Wednesday, the 17-term congressman will open congressional hearings into the nation’s aging road infrastructure, laying the foundation for a new national bridge initiative, one possibly backed up by a 5-cent fuel tax increase.

The 1967 Silver Bridge collapse, the most lethal in U.S. history, with 46 dead, ushered in a panoply of new federal bridge programs. But 40 years later, the number of deficient bridges has been nudged down only slightly, from 88,900 in 1969, to 73,784 today. In percentage terms, 15 percent of the nation’s bridges were rated deficient on the day the Silver Bridge went down between Ohio and West Virginia. When the I-35W bridge went down on Aug. 1, more than 12 percent of the nation’s bridges were still rated deficient.

Frequently asked about the responsibility of Congress in the nation’s poor record on bridge maintenance, Oberstar has taken to citing his own words during another round of bridge safety hearings in 1987.

“Our national bridge program is in serious trouble,” he testified then. “The safety of millions of Americans has been jeopardized by inept federal stewardship over our bridge inspection and rebuilding effort. States have misspent millions of federal aid bridge dollars.”

Oberstar is still largely inclined to blame state transportation authorities for failing to make effective use of federal bridge dollars. Too frequently, he argues, they are converted into all-purpose transportation funds, to be used for everything from new streetlights to wider roads.

But Oberstar’s critics say that he and his colleagues on the Transportation Committee have much to answer for themselves: His committee is widely seen as a one-stop shopping center for House members’ pet projects, from Alaska’s “Bridges to Nowhere” to Oberstar’s vaunted bike paths.

President Bush led the attack when he responded to Oberstar’s gas-tax proposal with a call to clean up pork-barrel spending in Congress. “If bridges are a priority,” Bush said, “let’s make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes.”

Some analysts say that White House opposition to a gas-tax increase in 2005 ensured a smaller national bridge and highway budget than many federal officials and members of Congress were calling for.

But Jeff Davis, editor and publisher of Transportation Weekly, points out that federal spending for core transportation projects nationwide — including bridges — was “significantly cut back” in 2005 to make room for a record 6,371 congressional earmarks, double the number in the last major road funding bill in 1998.

An analysis by Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington watchdog group, found that the 2005 transportation funding bill pared down money for bridge reconstruction by as much as $1 billion a year over the five-year life of the law in order to make room for $24 billion in special pork-barrel projects.

Critics note that the committee’s sense of entitlement was so complete that Alaska Rep. Don Young, then the GOP chairman of the committee, not only put his earmark on nearly $1 billion in special spending, but also imprinted the name of his wife, Lu, on the $293 billion transportation law. That’s the legacy Oberstar and Young will have to live down as they push for a new national bridge spending program. Oberstar has suggested a nickel increase in the gasoline tax — now at 18.4 cents a gallon — to raise $25 billion over three years.

Oberstar, for his part, has promised to shape legislation that would make the new bridge money earmark proof — from either Congress or the White House. The fund he wants to create, modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, could be used for no other purpose than bridges.

That would be a significantly different from the practice over the past 40 years since the Silver Bridge collapse: Going into Wednesday’s hearing, there is little disagreement that Congress has been diverting a growing sum for earmarks, and state transportation authorities have been transferring large sums to other pressing needs.

Oberstar says he understands the pressure of competing priorities. “It’s a daunting task to invest in bridges,” he said, “until you see the calamity.”

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