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The 35W Bridge: One Year Later

July 23, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

One year ago next week, the 40-year-old Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people, injuring 145 others and stirring millions more to new worries over the nation's crumbling infrastructure.
A lot has happened since that terrifying day. A new 10-lane, transit-ready span designed to last at least a century is nearing completion, thanks to speedy funding from Washington. Victims of the fall and their survivors have won compensation from the state. Minnesota's roads and bridges got their first significant new revenue in 20 years with the Legislature's override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto.

We've learned a lot, too, about hundreds more structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota and the still-scarce funds to rebuild them. Now we all know what gusset plates are, even if it's still not established that their weak design caused the 35W tragedy. And we've discovered, sadly, how politics affects which roads get built and even how federal safety officials investigate a bridge failure.

For better or worse, however, the 35W disaster stands as the kind of iconic event, like the 9-11 attacks, that changes public perceptions and leadership policy choices in ways that no amount of think-tank advocacy can hope to match.

For example, Minnesota highway officials have closed, permanently or temporarily, six additional major river crossings because of structural issues and fears of another tragedy. The six closures outnumber those reported in all the other states combined in the past year.

That's a big step up in preventative maintenance for a Pawlenty administration that tied for last in the nation in tapping federal highway bridge funds over the previous five years. State Department of Transportation officials say other money went to bridges, and they note that Minnesota has proportionally fewer deficient major bridges than two-thirds of the states.

But 6.3 percent of our bridges that are eligible for federal funds are structurally deficient, compared with 1.8 percent in Arizona, which matched Minnesota's paltry 51 percent use of its bridge apportionments, according to Federal Highway Administration figures. Minnesota transferred $50.6 million in federal bridge money to other highway programs in fiscal years 2005 and '06, more than any other state except California and Pennsylvania. Most states made no such transfers in that period, and Minnesota had not done it throughout the Carlson and Ventura administrations.

Meanwhile, thanks to the complex flexibility of highway funding programs, 14 states obligated more than 100 percent of their federal bridge apportionments over the five years. They included six states - Georgia, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington - with lower percentages of structurally deficient bridges than Minnesota.

That's an indication that some parts of the country are awakening to America's growing infrastructure crisis. This year alone, at least five major national government, business and policy study groups have issued strong calls to address what the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2005 identified as a $1.6 trillion cumulative shortfall in building and maintaining the nation's infrastructure.

That's $1,600,000,000,000 more that ought to be invested in roads and bridges and other assets such as water and sewer systems, dams and landfills over the coming decades - a few hundred billion less than the nation spends on health care every year.

Getting anywhere near that kind of commitment is tough, however, as demonstrated by Pawlenty's third veto of transportation funding and the exertions needed to finally overcome it. DFL legislative leaders had to put in a provision for widening a state highway in a Republican representative's rural district - that's known as an earmark, common in federal transportation funding but rare in Minnesota - to ensure that a two-thirds supermajority would defy the GOP governor's wishes.

More recently, as soon as Pawlenty stepped down following his year as chairman of the National Governors Association, the new chair, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, said his tenure will focus on infrastructure.

"It's not the sexiest of issues, but in many ways it's as important as anything we do," Rendell said. "The public understands the need to repair our roads and bridges. We need to educate the public that we can't do that for free."

According to Rendell, the United States in the 1950s devoted 11.5 percent of nonmilitary federal spending to infrastructure. That has fallen to less than 2.5 percent today. The federal gasoline tax, Washington's major engine of transportation revenue, hasn't been raised since 1993. It's lost a third of its buying power since then, pushing the federal Highway Trust Fund toward a projected deficit of several billion dollars beginning in October.

Rendell, a Democrat, also joined California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, this year in launching "Building America's Future," a broad-based effort "to ensure that the next president understands the enormity of the infrastructure crisis, is committed to increasing federal funding, and that both party platforms reflect these commitments."

Another important push this year came from the congressionally-chartered National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. It recommended that the United States invest at least $135 billion more annually from all sources for the next 50 years in surface transportation "to sustain and ensure strong economic growth for our families."

To start meeting that challenge, the panel proposed raising the 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax by 40 cents over five years. Bush Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the commission's chairwoman, dissented from that report, but it was endorsed by a leading conservative on the panel, Paul Weyerich.

Similar calls to action have come from the usually tax-averse U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the centrist Brookings Institution.

On Aug. 1, Pawlenty and other officials will join in prayer and memorial services, a procession of first responders and a moment of silence to recall the 35W bridge collapse and honor the dead and injured.

Such civic piety is all well and good, but it rings hollow unless the participants are willing to do what it takes to keep such tragedies from happening again and again.

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