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U.S. INFRASTRUCTURE Politicians build bridges, John Q. Public pays for them

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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 will they?

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 quickly."

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 September.

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 building.

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."


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