Follow the Money - Local Politicians Campaign Contributors
Friday, August 10, 2007
WASHINGTON - The chairman of the House Transportation Committee proposed a 5-cent increase in the federal gasoline tax to establish a new trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges.
However, the proposal by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., in the wake of last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis that killed five people was immediately rebuffed by his committee's senior Republican.
Oberstar said the trust fund would be modeled on the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for building and repairing roads and bridges through federal excise tax on gasoline that is now 18.3 cents a gallon. Revenue from the nickel increase — about $25 billion over three years, according to the congressman — could not be used for any other purpose than bridges.
He said he hoped the idea might win support from President Bush, who vehemently opposed a 5-cent increase in gasoline taxes two years ago and vowed to veto it.
"Governor (Tim) Pawlenty has had a conversion, and I expect the president will as well," Oberstar said. "At least we'll give him that opportunity. If you're not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you."
Last week, the Minnesota governor said he is willing to reverse his long-standing opposition to a state gas tax increase.
The federal Transportation Department did not immediately return phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the proposal.
Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the committee Oberstar chairs, panned the idea, calling it a "Band-Aid approach to a critical national transportation infrastructure problem."
"A knee-jerk reaction to the critical problem facing our transportation and infrastructure systems will only result in a continued failure to address the deteriorating conditions of our highways, ports, airports, and rail systems," Mica said in a statement. "It's like owning an 80-year old house that has serious problems with the plumbing, the heating, the foundation, and a leaking roof, and saying you're going to fix the driveway."
He called instead for the development of a national strategic transportation plan.
Oberstar's proposal would require the Transportation Department to come up with a formula for distributing funds based on public safety and need. Neither the president nor members of Congress could "earmark" specific projects to get money.
Oberstar said he had a commitment from House Democratic leaders "to bring this bill to the House floor as quickly as we can report it from committee" when Congress returns in September.
Speaking Wednesday in Boston, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pledged to support legislative efforts to repair the nation's aging bridges, roads and schools.
"Our sadness must at least be met with a commitment to address our infrastructure shortcomings. It's a huge task," Pelosi told the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Across the country, more than 70,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, according to the Transportation Department. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.
Associated Press writers Ken Maguire in Boston and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
DALLAS — State inspectors came to Dallas Tuesday morning to begin a thorough examination of highway bridges.
The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis last week has heightened safety awareness across the nation.
With some 6,000 bridges, Dallas County has more than any county in the state. Using a "snooper" crane, a team of three inspectors began examining the State Highway 310 span Tuesday morning.
The bridge, with a steel girder construction dating back to the 1950s, requires an annual inspection. Engineers say the adjacent Interstate 45 bridge, built with concrete, can go two years between inspections.
"Obviously, we're looking for cracks, we're looking for stains, we are looking for shearing," said Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Ball. "If there's pylons on the ground, we're looking to see how much erosion has occurred and if there's been accidents. If there's been an incident we're attempting to see if any damage has occurred to the actual concrete itself."
Of the 50,000 bridges in Texas, only 16 were built using the same construction technique as the one that collapsed in Minnesota. Those structures have already been inspected.
See Video of Justin Farmer's Report
Monday, August 6, 2007
At the request of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), entrance and exit ramps to and from Interstate Highway (IH) 35 to the Dallas North Tollway (Tollway) will be temporarily closed this weekend.
On Saturday, Aug. 11, the northbound entrance ramp to the Tollway from IH 35 will be closed from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Drivers may enter the Tollway at Wycliff Avenue.
Then, on Sunday, Aug. 12, drivers traveling southbound on the Tollway will not be able to exit onto IH 35 from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Instead, they will have to exit at the Wycliff Avenue Main Toll Plaza or at Harry Hines Boulevard.
These closures will allow TxDOT Bridge Division personnel to inspect the Tollway ramp bridges.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Anyone who owns a home, a commercial building or even a car knows that the most difficult money to spend is for preventive maintenance. Other priorities always seem -- at the time -- more pressing and important.
And then something goes wrong. In hindsight, it's easy to see that money spent in prevention actually would have saved money -- and sometimes, more important, lives.
Governments are no different.
Extensive investigations and angry accusations are sure to follow this week's Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Someone, somewhere, is to blame and must be held responsible. But it is a collective responsibility.
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution clearly states the duties of government: to "form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity."
And who is responsible for establishing that list of priorities? It's right there as well: "We the people."
Federal figures show that more than 70,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient in the United States -- 75 of them in Tarrant County, 23 of those with rating lower than the Minneapolis bridge. The Associated Press reported that the estimated cost of repairing them all is more than $188 billion and would take a generation.
And this doesn't even address bridges identified as "functionally obsolete," generally meaning they are too small to handle the traffic load over them. Tarrant County is home to 423 bridges with that classification.
The Federal Highway Administration says that the structurally deficient classification "does not immediately imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe" but that it does require hands-on inspection and significant maintenance and repair to remain in service. It also will require eventual rehabilitation or replacement.
We have no choice about replacing bridges that fail. But we do have a choice about what we do with those in need of repair.
We the People elect politicians -- local, state and federal -- to fulfill the responsibilities cited in the Constitution. They are the people who have to vote to spend our money. And they also have to be responsive to voters who demand more services even as they scream about paying taxes.
Investigations eventually will establish the exact cause of the Minneapolis collapse. But the fix for the nation's rapidly aging and increasingly obsolete infrastructure is philosophical.
Read more in the Star Telegram
Texas officials expressed confidence in the state's bridge inspection program Thursday but promised a quick response to the federal government's call to immediately inspect all bridges similar to the Minneapolis span that collapsed into the Mississippi River.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters signed off on an advisory that was sent by the Federal Highway Administration urging state transportation departments to conduct inspections of bridges similar to the collapsed steel-deck truss bridge. Officials said there are about 700 such bridges.
Chris Lippincott, a governmental liaison for the Texas Department of Transportation, said late Thursday that there are more than 30 such bridges on major state highways in Texas, and probably more on city and county roads.
Mr. Lippincott said that he was unaware of the federal alert but that Texas would follow such a directive.
"If we receive notification from the Federal Highway Administration to inspect a class of bridges, we will do so as quickly as possible. This will be in addition to our regular and aggressive inspection process," he said.
Before the alert, Texas officials had said they planned no stepped-up inspections, even as governors across the nation ordered their engineers to begin new assessments in light of Wednesday's tragedy in Minnesota.
Mark Cross, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said Texas, which has more bridges than any other state -- 49,829 as of 2006 -- now inspects all of them at least once every two years. Bridges in more critical condition are checked more often, he said, and because of the recent heavy rains, bridge inspections have been a top priority to ensure their structural soundness.
"We are on top of that," Mr. Cross said.
Top state bridge engineer Randy Cox said that although Texas has bridges of truss design similar to the Minneapolis bridge, there's no inherent additional danger.
In Missouri, Massachusetts and New Jersey, governors ordered new rounds of bridge inspections. Nationally, 12 percent of bridges are categorized as "structurally deficient," meaning they are deteriorating. In Texas, 4 percent of all bridges -- 2,125 -- are so categorized. Of those in Texas, 2 percent, or 483 bridges, are on major thoroughfares.
Last year, Texas issued 178 contracts for major bridge reconstruction and repair, including 17 in the Dallas area. In all, $489 million was spent for replacement and rehabilitation of bridges, according to a 2006 report on the condition of bridges put together by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Mr. Cross said older infrastructure "is a challenge" throughout the state and nation, but Texas has worked hard to identify problems and systematically repair problems.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
THE STATE OF TEXAS BRIDGES
According to the state's 2006 report on the condition of Texas bridges:
*Texas has 49,829 bridges. That doesn't include private, pedestrian, railroad, utility or federally owned spans. The total is 40 percent more than any other state.
*Roughly 19 percent of all Texas bridges were built before 1950. Thirty-five percent were built from 1950 to 1970.
*As of last September, 2,125 bridges (4 percent of the total) were classified as "structurally deficient," meaning they have been closed or have deteriorated to a point that the load-bearing capacity is below the originally intended maximum.
*Dallas County had 10 state-maintained bridges that were structurally deficient. Collin County had one and Denton County, five. Tarrant County had 36.
*Dallas County had 24 locally-maintained bridges that were structurally deficient. Collin County had seven, Denton County had 32, and Tarrant, 34.
*Rockwall County had no structurally deficient bridges in either category.
*The state's improvement plan is chipping away at the number of deficient bridges. In 2000, the state had 758 deficient, state-maintained bridges; last year there were 483.
*Last fiscal year, the state allotted $50.5 million for bridge maintenance.
ALL ABOUT U.S. BRIDGES
*Last year, at least 73,533 of the nation's 607,363 bridges, or about 12 percent, were classified as "structurally deficient," according to the Federal Highway Administration. These bridges carry a daily average of more than 300 million vehicles.
*Repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That works out to at least $9.4 billion a year over 20 years.
*According to the Federal Highway Administration, 83 percent of the bridges in the U.S. Highway Bridge Inventory are inspected every two years. About 12 percent, those in bad shape, are inspected annually, and 5 percent, those in very good shape, every four years.
*An analysis of 2006 Federal Highway Administration data found that Minnesota bridges were generally in better shape than those in other states. Only about 6 percent of the state's bridges were listed as being structurally deficient. Nearly 27 percent of Oklahoma's bridges were cited by the federal government as being structurally deficient, the nation's highest percentage.
*Of the 10 worst-off counties for bridges, seven are in Oklahoma or Nebraska. On the other end of the scale, at least 10 counties with a significant number of bridges have none that are structurally deficient, according to the latest government statistics. Six of those are in Texas.
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