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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Interview with Rep. James Oberstar

Source: Star Tribune

'Bridge maintenance is in the Stone Age'
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sat down last week with Star Tribune editorial writers to discuss the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. Here are excerpts:
Published: August 26, 2007

Q What should be the federal response? You've mentioned a gasoline tax increase. President Bush says he's against that.

A Let me cite testimony from Dec. 1, 1987, from two days of hearings I conducted on bridge safety. "Our national bridge program is in serious trouble. The safety of millions of Americans have been jeopardized by inept federal stewardship over our bridge inspection and rebuilding effort. States have misspent millions of federal aid bridge dollars through dereliction of their responsibilities to the traveling public. One of the most fundamental defects is the persistent failure of states to perform reliable, cost-effective maintenance of our bridges in compliance with federal statutory responsibilities. Bridge maintenance is in the Stone Age."

That was 20 years ago ... and very little has been done [by various administrations, Congress or the states]. It has only gotten worse. So this disaster is not really a wake-up call, it's a reawakening.

In the 1960s, when the Minneapolis bridge was built, we had 2 million trucks on the road in America. Today we have 7 million. And now we have just-in-time delivery of freight, which requires our highways to be rolling warehouses. Instead of 53,000-pound trucks, we have 80,000-pound trucks. We have 235 million vehicles in the U.S. That's huge pressure, far different than where we were when most of our bridges were built.

Q You have an initiative in mind.

A Yes. We have 597,000 bridges in America, of which 154,000 are deficient, either structurally or functionally. This is an opportunity. Instead of making Minnesota as a poster child for bridge failure, we should make this tragedy a springboard for action and attack in a focused way those most-vulnerable bridges. We should raise the standards on deficiency, raise the standards for inspections and the federal oversight of state responsibilities, develop a formula for rating deficient bridges based on threat to public safety, risk, importance to mobility. We need new ratings, state by state, a ranking of those most critical to be repaired. [Ratings would be done by the Federal Highway Administration and the states, and validated by the National Research Council.]

I also want to include in the formula a state's commitment to providing its matching share to the federal dollars. And then the cost. Create a Bridge Reconstruction Trust Fund, separate from the Highway Trust Fund, to create a dedicated revenue stream to respond to those needs.

I propose a 5-cent increase of the user fee [gas tax] for three years, generating about $8.5 billion a year, although the actual amount will depend on what the cost estimates are once the bridges are evaluated. Then I have an earmark-proof provision, drawn to be an emergency response. It's critical for people to believe that there won't be any tampering. It's a three-year crash program with a three-year sunset.

Q What do you make of the president saying no?

A Well, it was an offhand response. He also said that Congress has to fix the highway program, so I take him as a yes.

Q Can the construction industry handle all that in such a short window?

A Yes, I've talked to them.

Q Can the economy handle a nickel increase?

A These projects would increase the efficiency and reliability of moving goods and people, and they would create thousands of construction jobs.

Q And, in your formula, states that don't show commitment to matching federal dollars would suffer?

A I expect they would; this is a partnership.

Q In Minnesota, the governor has twice vetoed legislation that would have raised more federal matching money for transportation. Do you consider Minnesota a good partner?

A Our lieutenant governor [Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau] told me in October 2005, "We can't match all that money you want to give us." I said, "Then raise the user fee [gas tax]." As a policymaker, you cannot be stuck in an ideological time block. If it were left up to these people, we'd still be riding ox carts in Minnesota.

Q What should be Minnesota's response to this bridge collapse?

A Well, two. The first is what the state is doing now. Get a proper design and make sure it has funding to pay the up-front costs that will be reimbursed later by the federal government. That's the standard procedure. But what we understand is that the state has a cash-flow problem, and may have trouble. I don't want to see them shift money from other projects to this one.

Then, the state has a larger problem. For 20 years the user fee [gas tax] has not been increased, while the value of the construction dollar has eroded 47 percent. Our GDP was $89 billion back then; now it's $256 billion. Usage of the roads has increased tremendously; truck weights have increased, resulting in huge pressures. The user fee [gas tax] is not sufficient to keep up to these needs. They have to deal with this problem, and they can't do it with a sunsetted user fee.


Oberstar is given to hyperbole. He quotes testimony approvingly from 1987, which said, "Bridge maintenance is in the Stone Age." Oberstar himself criticizes Minnesota policymakers, saying, "If it were left up to these people, we'd still be riding ox carts in Minnesota." Neither statement is true nor helpful. Our modern road system could not have been built by ox cart technology nor stone tools. In reality, this statement would more accurately be true of radical environmentalists who detest use of the internal combustion engine.

Oberstar has a solution for aging interstate bridges–a new program and new tax dollars. What else is new? He wants to create a Bridge Reconstruction Trust Fund separate from the Highway Trust Fund which was created in 1956 to fund highways and bridges. Why is a separate fund needed? Politicians will misuse a new fund just as they have misused the Highway Trust Fund (see this opinion for example).

A three-year, temporary 5 cent per gallon gas tax would be the funding mechanism. When does government keep anything temporary Mr. Oberstar? And the new program would be "earmark proof". Oh really! The last transportation bill was overloaded with earmarks. Why not make the existing Highway Trust Fund earmark proof? Why do it just for bridges?

And isn’t Mr. Oberstar part of the problem that he says has been with us for more than 20 years? Being chair of the Transportation Committee for many years, he should have been pushing for corrective measures because he was forewarned in 1987. And now the exclamation point occurred in his own state! Twenty years is more than enough time to bring correction.

Leave it to the audacity of politicians. Your tight grasp on your wallet is the problem; not their mismanagement. And don’t wait for any apology from pols even though they are the problem. In the end, the hard working American taxpayers will once again bail out mismanaging politicians and bureaucrats.

We don’t need a new program and new money. We need new people in political office and in bureaucratic office, such as the Highway Trust Fund. There will be plenty of money to go around once the waste and pork is eliminated.

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