The Minneapolis bridge disaster that suddenly is the symbol of the nation’s crumbling infrastructure could tip the scales in favor of billions of dollars in higher gasoline taxes for repairs coast to coast.
There are 500 bridges around the country similar to the Minneapolis span, and “these are potential deathtraps,” says Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, former chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
“We have to, as a Congress, grasp this problem. And yes, I would even suggest, fund this problem with a tax,” he says. “May the sky not fall on me.”
One-quarter of the nation’s bridges, including the one in Minneapolis, have been classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. One-third of major roads are judged by federal transportation officials to be in poor or mediocre condition.
Beyond the human tragedy of the Minnesota bridge collapse lie some daunting numbers: The cost of the backlog of needed repairs to roads and bridges is now $461 billion. Road conditions are a factor in one-third of the 40,000 traffic fatalities every year. Traffic congestion costs drivers $63 billion a year in wasted time and fuel costs.
There’s no evidence to suggest that the Mississippi River disaster was a direct result of federal underspending. But there is wide agreement that the bridge is symptomatic of a national problem that Congress and the White House are going to have to address.
“It’s a tragic wakeup call,” said Matt Jeanneret, spokesman for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “This is gut check time for members of Congress for what they are going to do at the federal level.”
Criticism of past bill
Past action by Congress and the White House does not give rise to confidence.
The last six-year highway and transit bill finally passed in 2005, two years late and, at $286 billion, almost $90 billion short of the $375 billion that transportation advocates said was needed to keep U.S. infrastructure from further deterioration.
Young and other Transportation Committee leaders wanted to pay for the larger sum by indexing for inflation the fuel tax that keeps the National Highway Trust Fund in money. That would have raised the tax, at 18.3 cents a gallon since 1993, by about a nickel.
President Bush rejected what he said was a tax hike and insisted that Congress accept a far smaller highway budget.
According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce study last year, indexing fuel taxes retroactively to 1993 would have boosted the tax to about 25 cents a gallon last year, raising an average of $20 billion annually.
The two-year delay in passing the measure caused havoc with state transportation planners, who had to defer new projects because they didn’t know how much would be available. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.
“This administration failed to support robust investment in surface transportation and the funding to accompany it,” Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the Transportation Committee’s new chairman this year, said at a news conference after the bridge collapse in his home state.
When the next highway bill comes up in 2009, Congress won’t settle for a “bargain basement” measure, Oberstar said.
'That money is never going to get used'
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the top Republican on the committee, called for a national strategic transportation plan to fix a system where “we have congestion, where we have bridges falling into our rivers.” He cited an American Council of Civil Engineering estimate that this would cost $1.7 trillion.
The administration in turn has demanded that Congress show more discipline, citing thousands of special projects, or earmarks, in highway bills that don’t reflect the real priorities. The best known among them was one that Young supported: $223 million for the “Bridge to Nowhere” in Alaska. That provision eventually faltered, but about $24 billion — a little less than 8 percent of the total — in the last highway bill was still devoted to projects singled out by lawmakers for funding.
State transportation officials also complain about the federal practice of annually denying spending for uncontracted projects, leaving states short of money promised in transportation bills. This helped build up the highway trust fund, said Jack Basso of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, but the reality is that “that money is never going to get used.”
Since 2002, Congress has been using these unobligated funds for “rescissions,” a budget device used to offset spending and make the budget deficit look smaller. Such highway-related rescissions have grown from $374 million in fiscal 2002 to $4.3 billion this fiscal year.
Within a day of the Minneapolis bridge disaster, the Senate moved to create a national commission to look into what must be done to improve roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works. Advocates said it basically boils down to two issues — finding the money and the political will.
Two years from now, when Congress has to write a new six-year plan, the highway trust fund — which had a balance of almost $23 billion in 2000 — is expected to go into the red.
'We're in so deep a hole'
While revenues from the fuel tax are eroding in value, construction costs are soaring. In the past three years the costs of basic materials such as asphalt, steel and diesel fuel have risen 47 percent because of construction booms in China and other countries, said Jeff Shoaf, senior executive director of Associated General Contractors of America.
“We’re in so deep a hole that we’ve got to look at every option,” he said.
Among those options, all with their detractors, are building more toll roads, encouraging more private-public road projects, sanctioning more state and local construction bonds and taxing drivers according to miles driven rather than fuel purchased.
Congress also may finally be ready to consider a boost in the federal gasoline tax. Frank Moretti of TRIP, a national transportation research group, said continuing to oppose higher gasoline taxes could become politically untenable.
The bridge collapse “is going to create a fundamental shift,” Moretti said. The public would rather pay more taxes “than have to face the consequences of a crumbling infrastructure.”