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House votes to boost bridge spending

/ Source: The Associated Press

The House overwhelmingly passed legislation Thursday aimed at improving the safety of the nation's bridges, nearly a year after the deadly collapse of an interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis.

The vote was 367-55.

The legislation would authorize an additional $1 billion next year to rebuild structurally deficient bridges on the national highway system, and require states to come up with plans to fix such bridges. The Minneapolis bridge on Interstate 35W was one of approximately 70,000 structurally deficient bridges across the country.

The White House has said it opposes the bill unless the $1 billion provision is deleted. The administration said its own request of $39.4 billion in federal aid to states for highways, roads and bridges next year "is both responsive to current needs and consistent with budgetary realities."

The bridge safety legislation was sponsored by Rep. Jim Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Transportation Committee. He initially sought a 5-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase to fund $25 billion worth of bridge repairs over three years following the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse. But Oberstar had to abandon that plan after failing to win political support for it.

The legislation would require states to inspect bridges every two years, and structurally deficient bridges every year. A state would be allowed to transfer funds it receives from the existing Highway Bridge Program to other programs only if it has no bridges eligible for replacement on the federal highway system.

Some Republicans expressed concerns about that provision, saying it would harm the flexibility states need in determining where funds are needed to be spent.

The legislation also would require the Transportation Department to come up with a system to prioritize the fixing or replacement of structurally deficient bridges or functionally obsolete bridges, and to update National Bridge Inspection Standards.

In a statement, Oberstar said he toured the construction site of the new I-35W bridge this week and was amazed at the progress.

"But we owe the victims and the survivors of that tragedy much more than a new bridge, we owe them new bridge policy that ensures that the traveling public is safe," he said.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse killed 13 people and injured 145. An ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board has found that some of the bridge gussets — the plates that helped connect its steel girders — were too thin because of a design error.

The NTSB also said that the weight of construction materials on the bridge during resurfacing also was a factor. A final cause of the collapse is expected by the end of the year.