Lawmaker seeks repair fund to combat crumbling bridges

Trust fund modeled after the one for highways would make money available only for repairing, rehabilitating and replacing "structurally deficient" bridges.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., on Wednesday proposed a trust fund to rehabilitate bridges like the one that collapsed in his home state of Minnesota last week.

Oberstar, who announced his bill at the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, wants the trust fund modeled after the one for highways and would make dedicated funds available only for repairing, rehabilitating and replacing "structurally deficient" bridges. His bill would prohibit earmarks in the fund. The source and amount of dedicated funding would be determined after federal and state analysis of how much money is needed.

Oberstar will hold an oversight hearing on the issue Sept. 5 and is making his bill a top priority in the fall. "We cannot wait for another tragedy," he said in a statement.

Lawmakers, with construction industry help, might try to push through a broad infrastructure bill, but fiscal constraints and President Bush might derail the legislation.

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, R-Fla., said Oberstar's bill only addresses a small part of a larger infrastructure problem.

"This country lacks a comprehensive transportation strategy, and this is a Band-Aid approach to a serious national transportation problem," Mica said in a statement. "It's like owning an 80-year-old house that has serious problems with the plumbing, the heating, the foundation and a leaking roof, and saying you're going to fix the driveway."

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold an oversight hearing in September and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., will meet with senior California transportation officials in Sacramento next week, a Boxer aide said. Boxer is not ruling out infrastructure legislation outside of the broader debate over reauthorizing the Water Resources Development Act and the surface transportation law.

Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., said legislation was not needed before the committee holds hearings on infrastructure.

Of the approximately 594,000 bridges in the United States, about 73,500 -- or 12 percent -- are "structurally deficient," meaning they need significant rehabilitation, maintenance or replacement, according to 2006 statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.

According to a Congressional Budget Office report released Wednesday, infrastructure spending has accounted for about 3 percent of total federal expenditures since 1987, including $76.3 billion in 2006. The report, requested in June by the Senate Finance Committee, projects that federal infrastructure spending will rise to $77.3 billion this year, $79.4 billion in 2008 and $81.5 billion in 2009 to maintain the 3 percent level.

On Monday, Bush signed Oberstar's bill to authorize $250 million in emergency transportation aid and $5 million in transit assistance to Minnesota. Bush has been critical of congressional attempts to pass sweeping infrastructure bills. He has threatened to veto the $21 billion conference report to reauthorize the WRDA because of its price tag. He also forced lawmakers in 2005 to cut the cost of the last highway bill.

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