Parties clash in Congress over response to Minn. bridge collapse

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

(AP) - House Democrats clashed with Republicans and the Bush administration Wednesday over whether to raise gas taxes to pay for safer bridges in response to last month's deadly collapse in Minneapolis.

At a House Transportation Committee hearing, panel chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., touted his plan to pay for a bridge trust fund with a 5-cent increase in the 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax, saying Congress can't solve the problem with a "bake sale."

USDOT chief
Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters questioned the need for a federal gas tax increase to pay for bridge improvements in the U.S. She testified Wednesday before the House Transportation Committee.
David Lienemann/Getty Images

But Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said a gas tax increase wasn't the solution.

"Increasing federal taxes and spending would likely do little, if anything, to address either the quality or performance of our roads," she said. Instead, she called for better use of existing funds.

Following up on President Bush's comments last month, Peters criticized congressional earmarks for diverting federal money from where it was needed.

Obertsar's bill would establish a trust fund to repair, replace and rehabilitate structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System. It also would ban congressional and executive branch earmarks. He says his proposal would raise about $25 billion over three years.

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse on Aug. 1 killed 13 people.

"[The bridge collapse was] not an act of God, but a failure of man."

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told committee members those deaths "were not an act of God, but a failure of man, and a failure of our inability to invest in basic core infrastructure."

Rybak said he supports Oberstar's proposal because states and cities are far behind in providing adequate funding for transportation.

"If you invest in quality transportation, you will get quality results," said Rybak.

More than 70,000 of the nation's bridges are rated "structurally deficient" - including the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

"It demands a national response," said Oberstar.

The committee's top Republican, John Mica of Florida, criticized the legislation, calling it a "knee-jerk" reaction. He instead called for a national strategic transportation plan, to address not just bridges but other transportation and infrastructure needs.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)