Rep. Oberstar proposes plan to improve nation’s bridges

The Minnesota congressman partnered with Keith Ellison.

by Liz Riggs

In the wake of last month’s Interstate 35W bridge collapse, Congress is debating how it will address, and more specifically, pay to repair the thousands of bridges throughout the country that are deemed “structurally deficient.”

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a plan he said would “dedicate funding to states to repair, rehabilitate and replace structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System.”

Under Oberstar’s proposed National Highway System Bridge Reconstruction Initiative, the federal gas tax would increase 5 cents per gallon for a period of three years, with the money generated used to establish a bridge maintenance and restoration fund.

For the average driver, a 5-cent-per-gallon increase could mean an additional 75 cents to 90 cents per fill-up.

Lee Munnich, a transportation policy specialist and senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, called the proposed gas tax a “logical” way to fund bridge upkeep.

“I think it’s well documented that there’s insufficient funding for transportation infrastructure. I think we’ve seen that from the bridge collapse,” Munnich said. “It seems to me that there needs to be an investment in infrastructure dealing with bridges in particular. Ö I think Congressman Oberstar is trying to (move that along) by getting something on the table.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was among those to testify at a hearing Wednesday on structurally deficient bridges. He told transportation committee members he endorsed Oberstar’s plan for a temporary increase in the federal gas tax.

“In Minneapolis and in cities across the nation, we have not invested as we must in roads, bridges and transit, and our lack of investment has serious consequences,” Rybak said. “I say this as the mayor of a city recovering from a tragedy that was not an act of God. It was a failure of man.”

At the same hearing, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said “increasing federal taxes and spending would likely do little, if anything, to address the quality or performance of our roads,” adding that existing money could be reallocated to address the problem.

Oberstar asked Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, to hold an additional hearing on bridge inspection and technology issues sometime within the next two weeks.

While Oberstar has indicated he intends to introduce legislation on the subject – to be considered by the committee in the first week of October – the proposed method of funding the National Highway System Bridge Reconstruction could change between now and then.

“I don’t think a final decision has been made about what the funding mechanism (will be) at this point,” Oberstar’s communications director, John Schadl said. “The bill might be different than the proposal. That’s what the hearing process is for.”

House resolution honors Minnesota heroes

The same day the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held its hearings last week, the House approved Resolution 606, a decree honoring the city of Minneapolis, its first responders and the citizens of Minnesota for their efforts in responding to the bridge collapse.

Congressman Keith Ellison introduced the resolution. The Democrat represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which includes the University’s Minneapolis campus.

Micah Clemens, Ellison’s press assistant, said the resolution showed “one of the ways the House can acknowledge Ö the monumental size of the tragedy.”

Clemens also confirmed Oberstar asked Ellison to sponsor the National Highway System Bridge Reconstruction Initiative with him.

“I believe that the Congressman (Ellison) will be an original co-sponsor of the bill,” Clemens said.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.