Will the May 23 collapse of part of Washington state's Skagit River Bridge spark more federal funding for bridges? A senior House Democrat is seeking to boost bridge aid over two years. But intense federal budget pressure is likely to make a near-term hike a tough sell in Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House. Still, the Skagit bridge accident may at least amplify the call for more infrastructure aid, perhaps in the next big highway-transit bill, due in 2014.
At ENR press time, Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's top Democrat, was preparing to introduce a bill to add $5.5 billion for bridges over the fiscal 2013-14 period, a committee source says. Whether Rahall will win GOP co-sponsors for his bill is uncertain.
There is plenty of bridge work to do. The number of deficient bridges has declined by 23,357 since 2002, but 151,497 bridges—25% of the nation's total—remain subpar, according to the Government Accountability Office and the Federal Highway Administration.
Greg Cohen, American Highway Users Alliance president, says, "It's good that Congressman Rahall is bringing attention to the very serious bridge needs we have in the country. … Whether it can get through the House and the Senate and be signed ... is unclear."
Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors' highway and transportation division, says, "I think there's good impetus [for the bill]. ...Whether or not there's enough political push to get it through right now, I don't know."
In 2007, after the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis fell, killing 13 people, Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was a prime mover in getting a $1-billion infusion for bridges enacted.
With the Skagit bridge collapse a major issue in her home state, Murray, who still chairs the subcommittee, held a hearing on June 13 on bridge issues. The topic of an immediate bridge funding hike, like the one in 2007, didn't come up at that session.
Asked after the hearing about the possibility of new federal bridge aid, Murray told ENR, "We're exploring all of our options on this appropriations committee as we move forward." She added, "Clearly, this hearing has defined—as I know from personal experience now—[that] we have a critical infrastructure need in this country. And in very tight budget times, we have to figure out how we're going to fund it and what policies need to be in place to make sure it's there."
Polly Trottenberg, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation's undersecretary for policy, told the Senate subcommittee that the Obama administration has "some other ideas, potentially, about different ways we could fund transportation." But, she added, "Clearly it's going to need to be part of a larger, bipartisan discussion that we have in the context of a budget and tax overhaul."
Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association senior vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, says the Skagit bridge collapse is "just one more incident that piles on others that are building this call for increased attention [to transportation funding], and Congress is going to have to act on it."