Inadequate funding is a continuing issue

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Federal officials described the Minneapolis interstate bridge collapse as a "wake-up call" yesterday, but industry groups and others have tried for years to draw attention to gaps in funding for the country's aging infrastructure.

In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that more than a quarter of the nation's bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete -- and that was one of the brighter spots in the organization's report card on the nation's infrastructure. That same year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicted that the shortfall in money needed to simply maintain U.S. roads and bridges would grow to $500 billion by 2011.

"There simply isn't enough federal funding, as well as state and local funding, to accommodate our infrastructure," said David Mongan, the Towson-based president-elect of the ASCE. "Unfortunately, like many things in our country, it takes a crisis to really be able to focus the leaders' and the public's attention onto the problem."

President Bush signed legislation in 2005 to guarantee $268.4 billion for highways, rail and transit programs over six years, including more than $2 billion annually for bridge reconstruction. It was a 38 percent increase over previous funding but far less than the $375 billion the Department of Transportation said would meet all outstanding needs.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the funding was not adequate.

"And I think that most people who know anything about all of this know that," the Baltimore Democrat said. "We have an infrastructure that is in trouble."

Rep. John Sarbanes agreed.

"Every study that's done, whether it's highways or bridges or tunnels, points to the fact that we have lagged seriously in the kind of investment that we ought to make," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

One widely noted squeeze on spending: the drawing down of the federal Highway Trust Fund, the main source of federal dollars for road construction and repairs. Funded through a federal tax on gasoline that has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, the fund is projected to fall behind spending levels next year.

"The problem is that if you talk to anybody about increasing the gas tax," Cummings said, "most people are going to be against it."

Maryland receives $580 million annually under the current highway law, up $140 million a year from previous federal funding. Cummings asked the state Department of Transportation yesterday for a list of bridges currently considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

"We need to assess the adequacy of current inspection regimes for bridges and investigate why the number of deficient and obsolete bridges is so high," he said.

In comments yesterday on the Senate floor, Democratic leader Harry Reid said, "We should look at this tragedy that occurred as a wake-up call.

"We have all over the country crumbling infrastructure, highways, bridges, dams, and we really need to take a hard look at this," said the Nevada senator. Leaders in both the House and Senate said they would push legislation through this week to make up to $250 million in emergency funds available to Minnesota.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said the panel had sought $375 billion in the 2005 highway bill, including $3 billion annually for bridge reconstruction. The figures were cut to $268.4 billion overall and about $2 billion a year for bridges.

"In the next reauthorization bill, which will come up in 2009, we're not going to settle for a bargain-basement transportation bill," Oberstar said.

Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland, a member of Oberstar's committee, said he expected the disaster would lead to more money for highways and bridges but federal funding is only part of the solution.

"We have too many cars on the nation's highways," he said. "Too many cars on the bridges. And a real shift over the next 20 years to mass transportation is just going to be necessary.

"And just slow down on building all these roads, because whenever you build roads, especially on the East Coast, you're going to have to build bridges. They make good use of ferries in the Northwest."

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