They both agree on the need for improved inspection standards and a better way of deciding which bridges get fixed first. But comments at a Sept. 5 hearing show House transportation committee Chairman James Oberstar and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters remain sharply divided over the Minnesota Democrat's proposed new trust fund, financed by a gas-tax hike, to fix deficient bridges.

A week after the Aug. 1 collapse of the Interstate-35 W bridge in Minneapolis that left 13 dead, Oberstar proposed a new fund, supported by a gas-tax increase or other new revenue, to repair or replace the 6,175 structurally deficient bridges on the Interstate system and other key arterial highways. He said he wants it to be a temporary program, lasting three years. Each one-cent boost in the motor fuels tax would raise an estimated $1.7 billion a year.

Other elements of Oberstar's plan include tougher federal standards for bridge inspections and a new formula, to be developed by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, for distributing the envisioned additional bridge aid among states. He also would prohibit Congress as well as federal and state agencies from setting aside the new bridge money by "earmarking" for individual projects.

At the hearing of his committee, Oberstar cited DOT estimates that there is a $32-billion backlog of work on deficient bridges on major highways and said that the problem "demands a national response. We obviously have not done enough."

He added, "The question is how to pay for it. I don't think Americans want Congress to say: 'We'll have a bake sale for bridges.'" While Oberstar hasn't settled completely on how to fund the program, he has mostly talked about raising the federal levy on motor fuels, which now is 18.4 cents per gallon. He said that if the tax was "good enough for Dwight Eisenhower," who signed legislation launching the Interstate Highway System with the gas-tax financed Highway Trust Fund, it should be good enough for the current Congress and administration.

But Peters has criticized raising the fuels tax and reiterated that stance in her testimony. "It makes no sense to my mind to raise the gas tax," she said, "at a time when we are rightfully exploring every conceivable mechanism to increase energy independence and clean our air, promote fuel economy in automobiles and stimulate the development of alternative fuels as well as reducing emissions." She added, "We should be encouraging states to explore alternatives to petroleum-based taxes, not expanding the country's reliance on them by increasing the gas tax."

She did indicate support for other parts of Oberstar's plan, such as improving the bridge inspection standards, having no earmarks and a better way of setting priorities for which bridges should be rehabilitated.

Among the other issues discussed were some states' decisions to transfer some of their allocated federal bridge funds for non-bridge projects. States have authority to shift funds from some highway program funding accounts to others and to move road aid to transit. Federal Highway Administrator Rick Capka said that states as a whole actually transfer more money into bridge work from other funding programs than out of the bridge allocations. Those funds transferred into bridges have totaled about $600 million a year for the past five years, he said.

While noting that she supports states having flexibility in using federal highway aid, Peters said that DOT is looking at ways of ensuring that states first use their designated bridge funds to deal with deficient bridges that carry heavy traffic volumes before they transfer bridge money to non-bridge projects. Peters said she thought that might require approval from Congress, and added that DOT may include a recommendation on the fund-transfer topic in the fiscal year 2009 budget proposal, due out early next year. She also said that DOT could issue advisory guidance to states on the issue sooner than that, if it finds that's warranted.

Oberstar's panel also heard from National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker, who provided an update on NTSB's investigation of the causes of the I-35 bridge collapse. Rosenker said, "Much of the bridge superstructure is still under water. So there still is considerable work remaining for us to determine why it collapsed."

Rosenker also said that NTSB doesn't know yet whether the bridge's design was a factor in its collapse. He said that NTSB investigators have not yet recovered all of the gusset plates that tie together steel beams but have seen damage in some of the plate locations "that warrants further investigation." He added that NTSB doesn't yet know whether these gusset plate locations "represent primary or secondary failures."

Rosenker noted that deck resurfacing was being done on the bridge when it fell and that the combined weight of the equipment and materials was 287 tons. He said the board would be doing a finite element analysis of the structure to look at the effect of the loading.

Many other witnesses testified, representing state DOTs, local government and private industry, generally supporting Oberstar's proposal.