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Oberstar's stripped-down bridge bill gets hearing today

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Rep. Jim Oberstar
Just days after the 35W bridge collapse, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., proposed a new federal trust fund to help pay for bridge repair and reconstruction.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

(AP) - Rep. Jim Oberstar has backed off his proposal for a five-cent gas tax increase to fund $25 billion worth of bridge repairs, instead offering a $2 billion plan targeting the most dangerous bridges in the country.

      The House Transportation Committee, which Oberstar chairs, is scheduled to take up the bill on Wednesday.

      Oberstar, D-Minn., made the original proposal after the deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in August. But it ran into stiff opposition from the White House and congressional Republicans, and even some Democrats were cool to the idea.

"Anyone who claims we can fix over 73,000 structurally deficient bridges without additional revenue is not telling you the whole truth."

      In addition to authorizing $2 billion, Oberstar's pared down bill, The National Highway Bridge Inspection and Reconstruction Act, would require states to provide better training for bridge inspectors and would require that all bridges found to be structurally deficient be inspected every year.

      States that don't meet the requirements wouldn't be eligible for federal bridge funding.

      "This is not the bill I hoped to introduce," Oberstar said. "Anyone who claims we can fix over 73,000 structurally deficient bridges without additional revenue is not telling you the whole truth."

      Oberstar spokesman John Schadl said the idea isn't completely off the table, but said the most important thing is to get bridge inspections started.

      Oberstar said in a news release that the funding for bridge repair and reconstruction would be allocated based on a public safety formula and couldn't be diverted to other purposes by Congress or the president.

      "The collapse of the I-35W bridge has demonstrated that we have to act decisively on this issue," Oberstar said. 

The Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people.

      The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates it would cost more than $188 billion to fix all of the nation's 73,784 bridges that have been rated structurally-deficient.

 That designation is based mostly on a visual inspection and doesn't mean a bridge is about to collapse.

      Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., "is particularly pleased to see there is not an increase in the gas tax in this bill," said his spokesman, LeRoy Coleman. 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted that the Senate had approved $1 billion to help repair the nation's bridges as part of a larger transportation funding bill.

      "I would welcome more money," she said.

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