One year ago I came to Minneapolis to report on the Interstate 35W bridge which had collapsed suddenly into the Mississippi River.
It happened during rush hour. Thirteen people died and more than 100 were injured. You may remember the terrifying images of a school bus full off children trapped on top off the bridge and the cars dangling from the bridge.
I lived and worked in this city for seven years so it felt very personal to me. I was a reporter here and crossed that bridge hundreds of times. I never expected it would collapse, nor did anyone else. But our infrastructure isn’t what it used to be. I’ve talked the folks who study this stuff.
Most of our bridges were built around World War II. They were designed to last about 50 years. I’m told the average age of a bridge in our country is about 43. Here’s what’s really scary though: the Federal Highway Administration said in 2006, one quarter of the nation’s nearly 600,000 bridges were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Can you imagine?
The American Society of Civil Engineers says it will take $1.6 trillion over the next 5 years to repair all the bridges. But here’s the problem. A key source of that funding is drying up. The money comes from the Highway Trust Fund, which you pay for through taxes you pay on gasoline.
With people driving so much less, about 4 percent less in May alone, the U.S. Department of Transportation predicts tax dollars will fall far short of what’s needed for improvement projects. That means you may see a lot less construction on the roadways. The money simply isn’t there.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says, “Without a doubt, our federal approach to transportation is broken. And no amount of tweaking, adjusting or adding new layers on top will make things better.. it is time for a new, a different and a better approach.”
Her short term solution is for the Highway Trust Fund to borrow from the Mass Transit account. But with more people using Mass Transit, does that make any sense?
Last week the U.S. House passed an emergency funding measure of $8 billion for the Highway Fund, but the Senate and the President still have to approve it. What do you think is the answer?
Some states like Minnesota are getting creative and considering taxing people for every mile they drive since they can’t depend on the gasoline tax anymore. Do you have a better solution?
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