Office of Rep. James Oberstar
Bill's funding scaled back from panel Chairman's original concept
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has approved a bill that would authorize an additional $2 billion over two years to fix deficient bridges and also set tougher standards for bridge inspections. The measure, approved by voice vote on Oct. 31, comes in the aftermath of the Aug. 1 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, but the bill's funding is much smaller than committee Chairman James Oberstar's initial concept.
A week after the I-35W bridge collapse, Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, proposed a new trust fund aimed at deficient bridges on major U.S. arterials. At the time, he suggested financing the program by a five-cent-per gallon hike in the federal gasoline tax. That increase would bring in about $25 billion over three years, he said.
But Oberstar said before the committee vote that his original idea "ran into a buzzsaw in the Senate," where key lawmakers said they opposed a gas-tax boost.
The funding in the bill that the panel approved is in line with the fiscal year 2008 transportation appropriations bill the Senate passed earlier this year, which includes a $1-billion increase for bridges that year. One difference is that the Senate appropriations bill's $1 billion would come from the Highway Trust Fund and Oberstar would get his $1 billion in annual bridge aid from the general fund.
Other key provisions in the House committee's bill aim to strengthen the federal bridge inspection program. The measure would require states to do annual inspections of deficient bridges on federal-aid highways. At present, federal standards require inspections of all bridges every two years. Some states do annual inspections of deficient bridges, but there is no federal requirement to do so.
In addition, the committee bill would direct the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to develop a "risk-based priority" system for replacing or rehabilitating deficient bridges on the federal-aid road network.
The legislation also sets new requirements for bridge inspectors, who now are either state employees or contractors. Besides expanding training for inspectors, the bill would mandate that state inspection program managers be licensed professional engineers and that inspection team leaders be a licensed engineer or have at least 10 years' experience in bridge inspection. Those requirements would apply to individuals states name to those posts after DOT issues regulations implementing those new qualification standards.
In addition, the bill would bar a state from transferring federal bridge program funds to other highway-aid categories unless it demonstrates to U.S. DOT that the state has no structurally deficient federal-aid highway bridges within its borders.
After the committee vote, Oberstar told reporters that he expected the bill to come to the House floor during the first week of December.