Questionable State Policy No Deterrent To Feds’ Generous I-35W Bridge Relief

New Interstate 35W bridge proposals are to be unveiled this month by five Minnesota Department of Transportation-qualified design/build teams bidding


New Interstate 35W bridge proposals are to be unveiled this month by five Minnesota Department of Transportation-qualified design/build teams bidding to replace the Mississippi River crossing that collapsed August 1. MnDOT parameters for the 1,900-ft., 10-lane structure in Minneapolis include steel or a concrete/steel combination design.

When the original bridge was built in the mid-1960s, steel truss designs held the upper hand for jobs where placement of piers in the water was avoided. Post-tensioning methods, segmental box girder designs and spliced prestressed girders have since made concrete much more competitive in medium- to long-span structures.

Regardless of how competitive the steel or concrete/steel proposals are, MnDOT has a big budget for the Mississippi River crossing, thanks to a $250 million emergency federal funding package to cover much of the bridge replacement and interim traffic management. Even before that generous commitment from taxpayers was made law, the bridge collapse renewed discussion of nationwide infrastructure funding priorities and a potential federal motor fuel tax increase. Opponents of the latter had ammunition to back their arguments, citing especially the level of perceived pork and earmark projects in the SAFETEA highway funding program.

Two Minnesota political leaders’ voting records and I-35W bridge tragedy response speak loudly on infrastructure commitments. Gov. Tim Pawlenty found himself in an awkward position having vetoed the bipartisan Minnesotans for Better Roads and Transit (MBRT) initiative earlier this year. It called for a) a five-cent/gallon increase in the state motor fuel tax, which was last raised in 1988 and, at 20 cents, is below the national average of 23 cents; and, b) increases up to 2.5 cents/gallon triggered by debt obligations and transportation bond issuance. Associated General Contractors of Minnesota notes that over the next decade, MBRT’s motor fuel tax revenues Û plus receipts from additional user fees and (transit-dedicated) _-cent sales tax Û would have raised $450 million to $500 million annually for road, bridge and transit system maintenance and development.

MBRT was the second measure containing a modest motor fuel tax increase to garner a veto from Gov. Pawlenty, whose 2007 Accomplishments report ties his administration to Paying for Performance, Investing in the Future, and No tax increases. The slogans and vetoes make it harder to watch the federal government funnel $250 million to a state whose leader refuses to ask constituents to cough up an extra nickel per gallon of gas so MnDOT is better prepared to deal with an aging bridge inventory subject to an occasional freeze-thaw cycle.

If Gov. Pawlenty doesn’t step up to the plate on a sincere plan for more MnDOT funding, fellow Minnesotan and U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) might. A longtime infrastructure investment proponent who is not shy about the need for federal motor fuel tax increases, he announced shortly after the I-35W bridge collapse an initiative to repair, rehabilitate, or replace aging or failing National Highway System bridges. He will advance in Congress this fall an NHS Bridge Reconstruction Initiative, to be backed by dedicated, Highway Trust Fund-modeled revenue source, such as a five-cent/gallon gasoline and diesel fuel tax. The initiative calls for significantly improved bridge inspection requirements and distribution of funds based on public safety and need. Trust fund revenues would not be available for other purposes, including Congressional or Administration earmarks.

Among I-35W collapse images to frame the Bridge Reconstruction Initiative debate is one of a schoolbus that narrowly averted a plunge. From this Congressional session to Minnesota’s next gubernatorial election, maybe fear of connection to such an imperiled vehicle can trump the cowardice that prevents some incumbents and contenders from leveling with voters on the rising cost of safe transportation.
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