Oberstar proposes trust fund for aging bridges

Rep. Jim Oberstar
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., is proposing a new federal trust fund to help pay for bridge repair and reconstruction.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Oberstar has already shown what a powerful committee chairman can accomplish. Within days of the 35W collapse, Oberstar had pushed through emergency legislation that pledges $250 million for a replacement bridge and another $5 million for transit assistance. President Bush signed the bill earlier this week. Now, Oberstar is out to repair or replace an estimated 6,000 bridges with known structural deficiencies. "If we don't want another I-35 collapse, we have to address that portfolio of deficient, structurally-failing bridges," he said.

Oberstar says federal and state officials too often react to tragedies and fail to take pre-emptive action. His plan would create a new government trust fund dedicated to bridge projects. Allocations would be determined by safety needs, not Congressional or administrative earmarks.

Oberstar is proposing a temporary 5-cent-a-gallon increase in the federal gas tax to generate a total of $25 billion over three years.

Bent roadway
The remains of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Kahle

The federal gasoline tax has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993. But Oberstar says he thinks the driving public is ready to support a temporary increase.

"Just go to a corner gas station and stand there for a half an hour, the price goes up. Where's it going? Sixty cents on a dollar is going overseas. Some is going to Canada, the rest is going to the Middle East, to Venezuela, to whereever else we're buying oil," he said. "If you're not prepared to invest another 5 cents in road reconstruction, bridge reconstruction, then God help you. You haven't got a sense of the future."

President Bush has opposed previous attempts to raise the gas tax. But Oberstar says the 35W collapse might change the president's mind in the same way it changed Gov. Tim Pawlenty's view. Pawlenty used to be a gas-tax opponent, but now says he's open to an increase.

Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, says his organization will oppose any proposal to increase the gas tax. He says road and bridge repairs could be addressed with existing revenues. Krinkie also has doubts about Oberstar's proposal for just a three-year increase.

"There's no such thing as a temporary tax. Very, very rarely does a tax ever get imposed and then it goes away," Krinkie said. "In fact, the federal gas tax was established to construct our federal interstate system. Well, last time I checked the federal interstate system was pretty well completed, and yet we still have a 18, 18-and-half cents federal gas tax we pay every time we fill up."

Oberstar plans to hold hearings on his proposal and the 35W bridge collapse next month when Congress returns from its recess. William Miller, an expert on bridge engineering at Temple University in Philadelphia, says the public traditionally has not been well educated on the need for infrastructure repair. But he thinks the Minneapolis bridge collapse has changed that.

Miller says he thinks Oberstar is well positioned to lead the charge.

"He's able to exercise the necessary political will to convince both Congress, and also the constituents of the Congress members, to support this type of very important initiative," Miller said.

Miller says the problem for Oberstar and other advocates will be keeping up the momentum on the issue as media coverage of the collapse fades. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is also jumping into the bridge funding debate. Clinton, who's running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has proposed an emergency $10 billion, 10-year plan to repair the nation's bridges. Her plan would also provide $250 million in emergency assessment grants and increase federal funding for public transit by $1.5 billion.