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Teri Finneman, Published August 01 2008

Funding crisis disrupts need to monitor or repair bridges

Keith Berndt understands the increased emphasis on bridge inspections since the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed last year.

But for the Cass County engineer, it all comes down to one thing: money.

Or, more specifically, the lack thereof.

Cass County has 60 structurally deficient bridges – those that need monitoring and/or repair – and another 119 bridges nearing the end of their lifespan. The county has 243 bridges more than 20 feet long.

But with the minimal federal funding the county receives, only one bridge can be replaced per year, Berndt said.

“The unfortunate thing is, while it’s been a year since the Minneapolis bridge collapse, we haven’t seen an extra dime in bridge funding since then,” he said.

“We can’t inspect away our deficient bridges.”

Today marks one year since the collapse of the I-35W bridge that killed 13 and injured 145 others.

The tragedy created an uproar as states scrambled to increase bridge inspections and ensure bridges were safe.

One year later, however, the nation faces the bankruptcy of its Highway Trust Fund, with states facing potential cuts of up to $14 billion in federal highway funds.

This would mean a loss of $70.5 million for North Dakota and $142.6 million for Minnesota, according to figures from the Federal Highway Administration.

A report issued this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation added to the bleak situation: Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than in May 2007.

As Americans drive less, the federal Highway Trust Fund receives less revenue from gas taxes, which help finance the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the nation has 150,000 bridges that require at least $140 billion in serious repairs or upgrades.

“We see a looming crisis here with funding and replacing so few bridges,” Berndt said. “We can see down the road that things are going to get worse before they get better if we don’t change the way we do business a little bit.”

Congress is trying to push through legislation to help the situation, said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

One bill includes $1 billion to address urgent funding needs on the federal highway system, Pomeroy said.

The other would restore

$8 billion to the Highway Trust Fund that was removed in 1998.

The White House said last week that taking money from the general fund to prop up the highway system is “both a gimmick and a dangerous precedent that shifts costs from users to taxpayers at large.”

Top House Republicans on the Appropriations and Budget committees also urged defeat of the measure, saying it would increase the deficit and remove revenues “that would normally be used to pay for national defense, education, medical research and other congressional priorities.”

Despite the deepest deficit in the country’s history, Pomeroy said the nation can’t risk public safety by not funding essential infrastructure.

“If the trust fund runs short, the answer is not to cut back on the road construction,” he said. “We need to find the money to continue the road construction.”

One solution to help the Highway Trust Fund is increasing the federal gas tax.

The gasoline tax has been at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, Berndt said.

With inflation and rising construction costs, the tax lacks the buying power it once had, but it’s not politically palatable to increase the tax in times of high gas prices, he said.

Another idea discussed involves implementing more toll roads, Pomeroy said. That idea wouldn’t work well in sparsely populated areas such as North Dakota, he said.

The Minnesota Legislature this year increased the state gas tax by 8.5 cents, which is still being phased in.

Even with the rate increase, officials predict a drop in gas-tax collection, said Kevin Gray, chief financial officer for the state Department of Transportation.

Minnesota officials figure they could lose $180 million to $250 million in federal funding for road and bridge projects for the 2009 fiscal year.

Between 175 and 225 state and local projects in Minnesota could be delayed or cut, with decisions being made about which ones coming no earlier than October. MnDOT also estimates that 4,800 to 6,700 jobs related to the projects could be lost.

Gray said most of the projects would be delayed to the next fiscal year, which would create “a wave of project delays into future years.”

Berndt of Cass County is optimistic the North Dakota Legislature will look at investing a significant amount of funding into transportation during the 2009 session.

Some officials support dedicating more of North Dakota’s motor vehicle excise tax to transportation. The bulk of the revenue now goes into the state’s general fund.

The anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge collapse should be a powerful reminder that infrastructure requires constant investment, Pomeroy said.

He’s not sure how the U.S. Senate will act on the pending federal legislation.

“I would like to think that it would be a tragic anniversary that might be powerful enough to drive legislative response,” Pomeroy said. “But unfortunately, so far, prospects seem very uncertain in the Senate.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Teri Finneman at (701) 241-5560