House Committee OKs Pared-Down Bridge Bill

Vehicles are scattered along the broken remains of the Interstate 35W bridge, which stretches between Minneapolis and St. Paul, after it collapsed into the Mississippi River during evening rush hour Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, sending vehicles, tons of concrete and twisted metal crashing into the water.
AP/The Star Tribune, Heather Munro
The House Transportation Committee approved scaled-back bridge safety legislation Wednesday, offered grudgingly by the chairman after his plan to pay for repairs with a gas tax increase fell flat.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., initially proposed raising the gas tax by 5 cents a gallon to fund $25 billion worth of bridge repairs over three years, in response to the deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis in August.

In the end, Oberstar offered a far more modest bill that would authorize $2 billion to fix the nation's worst bridges, to be paid for with general funds.

The gas tax proposal was strongly opposed by the White House, congressional Republicans and even some Democrats. Neither of Minnesota's senators, Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Republican Norm Coleman, supported it, dimming its chances for passage in that chamber.

Oberstar said his proposal - which he considered a "no-brainer" for lawmakers to pass given the Minneapolis bridge collapse - ran into a "buzz saw" in the Senate.

"They're out there approving ambassadors and judges and treaties. But to scare the Senate, all you need to do is raise 5 cents in front of them and they run for cover," Oberstar said. "And that's what they did."

Klobuchar said that she and Oberstar share the same goal of getting more money for bridges and roads but simply have different approaches for financing it.

"Clearly, I support his current proposal, and I'll work hard to get that done," she said.

The Senate recently approved $1 billion to fix bridges as part of a larger transportation and housing programs bill.

In addition to authorizing $2 billion, Oberstar's pared-down bill would require states to provide better training for bridge inspectors and mandate annual inspections for all bridges found to be structurally deficient. States that didn't meet the requirements wouldn't be eligible for federal bridge funding.

White House spokesman Alex Conant called the decision to drop the gas tax proposal "a victory for taxpayers," and said the White House remained skeptical of new spending, saying it preferred to see Congress better prioritize money already being spent.

The committee approved the legislation on a voice vote. Republicans who panned Oberstar's original proposal had some good things to say about the bill, but some Democrats said it didn't go nearly far enough.

Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., called the bill a good start.

"But we will be back," he said. "And when we come back, I hope it's nobody on this committee whose constituents die, because we have failed to do our job because we didn't have the political courage to do what this country needs."