WASHINGTON — The Senate approved $1 billion on Monday to speed repair and replacement of America's crumbling network of bridges, six weeks after the Interstate 35W span collapsed in Minneapolis.
The Senate approved the funds on a 60-33 vote as the Senate began debate on a $104.6 billion measure funding transportation and housing programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
"Our bridges are deteriorating far faster than we can finance their replacement," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lead sponsor of the bridge-repair funds. "More than one in every four bridges on U.S. highways is rated as deficient."
If approved, the Democratic plan would boost federal funding next year for bridge repair and replacement by 20 percent, but would barely make a dent in the $65 billion nationwide backlog of bridge repairs identified by the Department of Transportation.
The underlying bill faces a veto threat from President Bush, however, for exceeding his request by $4.4 billion.
"Fully 27 percent of our 600,000 bridges have aged so much that their physical condition or their ability to withstand current traffic levels is simply inadequate," Murray said. "Roughly half of these deficient bridges - or about 78,000 bridges across the nation - are structurally deficient."
The infusion of bridge repair funds would be paid for by tapping the dwindling reserves of the highway trust fund. Gasoline tax revenues are coming in below estimates and are unlikely to be able to fund highway programs at the levels set forth by the 2005 highway bill.
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., countered that lawmakers "should not overreact to the Minnesota bridge collapse by spending more money ... than is available."
White House budget office spokesman Sean Kevelighan said the Bush administration opposes the idea since it would speed up the depletion of the highway trust fund.
The money would not go to replacing the fallen Minneapolis bridge; rather, it would be delivered to state highway departments according to a funding formula set by Congress two years ago.
Congress moved immediately last month to pass a law approving a $250 million replacement bridge. But that legislation simply authorized the bridge, but did not provide actual funding.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Monday she would offer an amendment to pay for the Minneapolis bridge replacement during debate on the transportation spending bill.
"It would be ironic if the Congress provided $1 billion for bridge repair across the country and didn't fix our bridge," Klobuchar said. "That won't happen and that can't happen."
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican facing re-election next year, said the White House has made a commitment "that the money will be there."
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