The decay of the nation's infrastructure has
long been a problem without a face. But that changed in an
instant when cameras recorded the deadly collapse of the
interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis. Suddenly, a nebulous
dilemma was tied to a horrifying image few will soon forget. Or
Lawmakers and the companies experienced in
building the nation's bridges and roads moved quickly after the
collapse to make their case for more money to address the
problem. Currently, the main source of federal funding comes
from the 2005 transportation bill, which allocated $286.4
billion over six years to improve the nation's transportation
network. But critics, and even the Transportation Department,
have said that amount falls well short of what's needed not
only to repair the aging system but to undertake badly needed
new projects. With the bridge collapse, advocates see a unique
chance to get their voices heard.
"We cannot wait for another tragedy," Rep.
Jim Oberstar (D., Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation
and Infrastructure Committee, said. "We must act, and act
Oberstar is leading the fight for an increase
in financial support. Immediately following the disaster, he
requested $250 million in emergency funding to replace the
collapsed bridge. Congress has authorized the request, but it
won't appropriate the money until it reconvenes in
More importantly, Oberstar introduced the
National Bridge Plan. Its aim is to generate additional funds
for the National Highway System, which carries 45 percent of
the country's highway traffic and 70 percent of bridge traffic.
Of the more than 590,000 bridges in the United States, the
Federal Highway Administration estimates that about 26 percent
(around 153,000) are structurally deficient or functionally
obsolete; the American Society of Civil Engineers pegs that
figure at closer to 28 percent (about 165,000).
While no price tag has been slapped on the
initiative yet, sources say it will probably cost about $25
billion. Oberstar is said to be considering a nationwide
5-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax, although his office says he is
keeping an "open mind" about how to fund the initiative.
The plan has been enthusiastically endorsed
by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association,
which noted that the federal gasoline tax hasn't increased
since 1993. "This is a strategic, targeted capital investment
plan that has accountability and a defined national
outcome-eliminating structurally deficient bridges on America's
most heavily traveled highways," Matt Jeanneret, the group's
senior vice president of communications, said.
Even the normally tax-averse National
Association of Manufacturers said that all options are on the
table. "The NAM has always believed low taxes are a key to
economic development," a spokesman said, "but if this is a
means to an end in updating our nation's infrastructure system,
it certainly is something we would consider."
Others wonder how the bridge collapse will
impact bridge building in the future.
Since the bridge collapse, concrete
producers, who sometimes compete with the steel industry for
bridge projects, have circulated electronic newsletters saying
that the Minneapolis bridge collapse is an example of why
concrete is superior to steel when it comes to bridge
But Conn Abnee, executive director of the
National Steel Bridge Alliance, said it's too soon for anyone
to make judgments about what went wrong.
There are many different steel grades
available when it comes to bridge construction-from HPS 70 to
weathering steel-and none of the engineers Abnee has spoken to
has said they are planning to change their approach to
materials because of the disaster. "Everybody that I've talked
to wants to get to that question-what caused the bridge
failure? Was it material? Was it design? It's too early to say.
A lot of the bridge that needs to be studied forensically to
determine what caused the collapse is still in the water."