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August 6, 2007 7:55 AM, EDT

Bridge Collapse Points to Need For Road Funds, Officials Say

By Sean McNally and Andrea Fischer, Staff Reporters

This story appears in the August 6 print edition of Transport Topics

The catastrophic collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis last week underscores the need for increased funding for U.S. infrastructure, several transportation officials said.
The bridge — part of a major freight route over the Mississippi River — crumbled during rush hour on Aug. 1. Many trucks and cars were moving slowly over two open lanes, while construction crews worked on the other six. Officials reported four confirmed deaths at press time, but warned that additional bodies would likely be found in submerged vehicles.
Even as recovery efforts were under way, experts were poring over the structure to determine the cause of the collapse. Officials said it could be months before the cause is determined.
“We obviously don’t know what caused the collapse but it does demonstrate that the system is fragile,” said Darrin Roth, director of highway operations for American Trucking Associations. “Failure to invest in highway infrastructure has real and tragic consequences.”
Roth said the span is “the most heavily used in the entire state.”
 “I don’t think its any big secret that we are falling short of meeting the infrastructure needs of this country,” said Matt Jeanneret, a spokesman for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.
“This just illustrates the point that there are vast infrastructure needs and we need to be investing more,” Jeanneret said.
“I think as most of us in the transportation world know, we are not spending what is needed to maintain our roads and bridges,” said Greg Cohen, president of the American Highway Users Alliance.
“Unfortunately, it’s the kind of problem that’s easy to ignore until there’s a disaster,” Cohen said.
“This is a tragedy,” said Minnesota U.S. Rep. James Oberstar (D), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He called it “yet another wake-up call about the nation’s infrastructure.”
“To ensure the safety of our na-tion’s bridges, we have to make a more robust investment than we’re doing now,” he said.
Oberstar’s committee approved emergency legislation Aug. 2 to increase the maximum amount of relief funding for the project to
$250 million from the $100 million normally allowed.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters went to Minnesota “to offer the full support of the federal government,” including “expedited financial assistance,” from the federal government, she said. She announced an immediate grant of $5 million in emergency funds to Minnesota.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House transportation panel, said, “Nearly every community suffers from dated infrastructure and congested highways.”
Mica said he pledged his support to rebuild the span but that “rebuilding the I-35 bridge is only a band-aid to a much more serious problem facing the nation’s communities.”
The bridge received a poor rating in a recent federal survey, Oberstar said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House highways subcommittee, said “there are thousands of bridges that have [similar] problems . . . and people are driving on them every day.”
ARTBA’s Jeanneret said that DOT’s bridge survey showed 25.7% of 594,709 bridges in the United States were either “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”
“It’s not just bridges, it’s every highway that needs repair,” Jeanneret said. Of the 961,382 miles of roads in the federal highway system, 161,750 need rehabilitation or repair, he said.
Oberstar’s 2005 highway funding legislation authorized $2 billion for “bridge reconstruction and maintenance,” but he thought that figure should have been higher and blamed the Bush administration for underfunding transportation.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee said she “intend[s] to hold hearings immediately after the recess on the condition of our national infrastructure and how we can prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”
Keith Klein, executive vice president of Transport America, Egan, Minn., said the bridge collapse would have a significant effect on freight shipping in the area.
“It was a major artery. This is going to disrupt traffic for a long period of time,” Klein said, adding that of the 200 trucks based in Minneapolis, “20 to 30 trucks a day [go] across that bridge — that’s a large number of our trucks that we now have to re-route.”
 “This is going to send shock waves through the whole metropolitan-area road system. Freight from Canada, the Dakotas, most of the Midwest . . . everything runs through Twin Cities. It’s definitely going to disrupt freight flow,” John Hausladen, president of the Minnesota Trucking Association, told Transport Topics.
“Anytime you’re talking about a main federal interstate — it is an important artery — but this one is more important for passenger traffic than for trucking,” said Norman Black, spokesman for UPS Inc. A UPS Freight truck was on the bridge when it went down, injuring the driver.
“Trucking can route around the city,” Black said. “The biggest im-pact on trucking will be when companies have to use those alternative routes. Those roads will be congested because all the passenger vehicles are also looking for alternative routes.”
Hausladen said MTA has asked the state to open the adjacent
I-35E bridge to trucks, despite a prohibition on commercial traffic because the bridge runs through a residential area.
If that is not allowed, Hausladen said, trucks will need to take the Interstate 94 beltway for north-south routes, or Interstate 694 and Interstate 494 for east-west routes. If trucks must go through the middle of the city, they will have to travel on state Highway 280.