tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bridge work

Two years ago this month, I covered a speech delivered by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) in Duluth, Minn. He is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Oberstar used a 30-minute speech to tell a business audience about all the money the nation was preparing to spend on highway construction and other transportation projects. He talked about safety, but only in terms of building better roads which might lead to fewer traffic accidents. About 42,000 people per year die in auto accidents. He never mentioned bridge safety.

Bridge safety, of course, in on my mind because of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse earlier this month. Officials are moving quickly to rebuild. The cost is estimated to be about $250 million and some even say the new bridge could be in place in about a year.

Two years ago, Oberstar talked about passing legislation that would spend $286.5 billion over six years on transportation – a significant amount of money but $90 billion less than Oberstar said he would like to spend.

Oberstar said $2.8 billion of the total would be spent in Minnesota. The impact of that spending would be substantial. He said for every $1 billion spent on highway investment, the state gains 47,000 jobs.

Oberstar provided these details: $448 million of Minnesota’s allocation would be used for Interstate highway maintenance, $190 million for bridge replacement, $115 million to mitigate traffic congestion, $89 million for highway safety, and $23 million to eliminate hazards at railroad crossings, and $18 million to improve border crossings into Canada. He said there would be $1 million to buy child safety booster seats, and $500,000 in motorcycle safety grants.

“All of those initiatives are going to mean good things happening in our state,” he declared. That was two years ago.

A week ago on August 8, Oberstar introduced a program to repair the nation’s bridges. He issued a statement noting that 73,784 bridges in the country are rated “structurally deficient.”

Oberstar’s program would upgrade bridge inspection requirements and create a trust fund setting aside money for bridge repair. I don’t get the sense, however, that we will ever be able to set aside enough money to improve the condition of nearly 74,000 bridges.

Oberstar said addressing this issue will be the first order of business for his committee when Congress returns from its August recess. He will convene a hearing of the committee to look at the problem of structurally deficient bridges on Sept. 5.

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