Most in poll see national bridge safety problem but remain confident in local spans

Structurally deficient
The Lafayette Bridge - which carries Highway 52 over the river just east of downtown St. Paul - is considered structurally deficient,
MPR file photo/Bob Collins

(AP) With tens of thousands of U.S. bridges considered structurally deficient, Gary Bowen figures the Minneapolis span that collapsed last week can't be the only one with big problems. Joyce Davis isn't quite so worried.

The two were part of an Associated Press-Ipsos survey this week in which majorities said that while the collapse signals a nationwide safety problem, they have confidence in their own communities' spans.

The poll was released Thursday, even as President Bush signaled resistance to congressional proposals to raise federal gasoline taxes to finance widespread repairs. He accused lawmakers of steering federal money to local projects before distributing the money nationally.

"That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money," Bush said at a news conference. "So before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."

Bush's comments, eight days after the rush-hour disaster at the Mississippi River crossing, could point toward a confrontation over the idea when Congress returns from recess next month.

Three out of four in the AP-Ipsos survey expressed at least some confidence in the condition of bridges in their home state, including three in 10 who said they were very confident. Yet by 55 percent to 42 percent, most said last week's disaster pointed to a wider problem, not an isolated incident.

"Somebody has to make it a priority, but everybody is pinching their budgets," said Bowen, 46, a teacher from Perryville, Md. "People don't understand that construction isn't forever. You have to do maintenance or it will fall down eventually."

The poll revealed political differences over how the Minnesota bridge collapse was viewed.

Democrats were likelier than Republicans to view it as symptomatic of broader problems by a three-to-two margin, and were also less likely to voice confidence in local bridges.

In addition, those who approve of the job Bush is doing as president were more than 20 points likelier than those who disapprove of him to see last week's incident as an isolated one and to voice confidence in their area spans.

Men expressed slightly more confidence than women in the condition of local bridges, and younger people were more confident than older. Eight in 10 people from the South and West expressed confidence, a bit more than did so from the Northeast and Midwest.

There were similar divisions over whether the Minneapolis bridge failure indicated a broader problem, with women and older people likelier to see national implications than men and younger people. People from the Northeast and from urban areas were also likeliest to attach widespread significance to the downed bridge.

"I guess I just have a little more faith in our engineers," said Davis, 45, a high school secretary from rural Otis, Colo., who said she saw the Minnesota incident as an isolated one. "This kind of happened out of the blue. I don't think it's the beginning of a series of catastrophic events."

Polls often show that people who acknowledge national problems perceive them as being less severe in their own areas.

Asked about the status of public works projects in their areas, six in 10 rated the electrical, water and sewer systems in their areas in excellent or good condition. Slightly fewer gave similar high marks to public school buildings and bridges, and fewer still gave good grades to area roads, and mass transit systems like trains and buses.

Some members of Congress of both parties have proposed boosting the 18.3-cents-per-gallon federal levy to repair or replace some of the 70,000 bridges considered structurally deficient.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has proposed a 5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase for the work.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the panel's former chairman, has also suggested financing the work with a tax increase. But the panel's top Republican, Rep. John Mica of Florida, criticized the idea as a "knee-jerk reaction."

In the Senate, Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, hasn't taken a position on raising the gasoline tax. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee's senior Republican, feels lawmakers should look first at whether existing federal money could be better spent, said Grassley's spokeswoman, Jill Gerber.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in an interview with the AP that she was writing a letter to Bush asking him to redirect $2.1 billion in unspent Iraq reconstruction funds to emergency repairs. She said if the president does not agree, she would pursue the money using legislation.

In the last $286 billion highway bill, about $24 billion, or 8 percent, went to highway and bridge projects selected by lawmakers. The rest was distributed to states, which decide how to spend it. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all public works spending.

The AP-Ipsos poll was conducted August 6 to 8 and involved telephone interviews with 1,003 adults. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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