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I-35W Bridge Collapse Could be Repeated as Federal, State Governments Fail to Fund Highway Maintenance

Aug 3, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

The Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed at least 6 people Wednesday night could be a warning of more tragedy to come if something is not done to fix the aging US highway system.  According to the national transportation research group TRIP, a third of all major roads are in “poor or mediocre” condition, and more than a quarter of the bridges on the interstate highway system are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete”.   And what’s worse, there is no money available to fix them.

The national highway system is over 50 years old.  In 1955, it carried a paltry 65 million vehicles.  According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, 246 million cars and trucks use the system today.   That’s a lot of wear-and-tear on roads and bridges, and many of them are crumbling.  Unfortunately, as traffic on roads has increased, federal and state funding to fix them has not kept up.  Last year, the Federal Highway Administration asked Congress for $375 billion for highway repair projects.  Some of that money would have gone to fix bridges that, like the I-35 W bridge that collapsed, were deemed “structurally deficient”.  Unfortunately, Congress only authorized $286 billion.

What’s worse, the Federal Highway Trust Fund is slated to go broke by 2009.  That fund is supported by gasoline taxes, which haven’t risen from 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.  Congress did propose raising the tax by 4 cents a gallon last year, but backed off when President Bush assured that he would veto any attempt to raise taxes.

And an “all taxes are bad” attitude has held down road funding at the state level as well.  Traditionally, states made up shortfalls in federal highway funding with things like gasoline taxes and user fees.  The anti-tax sentiment that has gripped the country for the last several decades has led many state lawmakers to oppose increases in these taxes and fees. Many states faced with highway funding shortfalls have looked to privatization as a way to deal with expensive road repairs.  Indiana and Illinois both signed contracts with private firms to take over several state roads, and New Jersey is considering selling a 49-percent stake in the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkways.  But private companies expect to make a profit from these roads, so it really isn’t known whether they will do a better job of making expensive repairs.

In the case of the I -35W bridge, the Minnesota Department of Transportation knew years ago that the collapsed bridge was structurally deficient.  It is not known if financial pressures played a part in MNDOT’s decision to forgo repairs on the I-35W bridge in favor of inspections.   However, department officials have said there was enough money in Minnesota’s transportation budget to fix the bridge.  But in far too many states, the money for road and bridge repair just is not there.  That sad fact is leading many to ask not if, but when there will be another tragedy like the I-35W bridge collapse.


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