Minnesota State Lawmakers: We Knew We Had a Road Problem

Two Minnesota state lawmakers with key transportation oversight assignments said Thursday that the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is proof that attention to road safety has been too weak for too long.

"It was a growing seriousness to the problem that we have with the transportation infrastructure in the state — not just bridges, not just roads," said state Sen. Steve Murphy.

The bulk of transportation funds in the state come from the state gasoline tax and the state's auto licensure fees. Those funding systems haven't changed in about 20 years, and although revenues are increasing as the number of autos on the road increases, state government needs more money than it has for upkeep, said the key lawmakers.

Even before Wednesday's accident on the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River — which took at least four lives and injured dozens — "We knew that we had a problem," Murphy said.

Murphy, chairman of the Minnesota Senate's Transportation Finance Oversight Committee, and state Rep. Bernard Lieder, who chairs the counterpart committee in the Minnesota House, both told FOX News that the state's transportation needs are growing faster than the revenues the two funding sources are bringing in. An attempt in 2006 to increase the share of funds approved by the Democratic-led Legislature was vetoed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

A spokesman for Pawlenty reached Thursday did not have an immediate comment. Pawlenty told FOX News early Thursday that despite the bridge's rating — 50 out of a 100 score on a federal inventory scale — plans for structural repairs to the 40-year-old bridge had not been scheduled for at least 10 years.

The overall transportation budget, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation figures, stands at about $3 billion, an underfunding by $1.7 billion, Murphy said.

Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., said state officials should have better used money made available in the 2005 federal highway bill, which increased federal funds to Minnesota by 46 percent.

"We're going to have to swallow the bitter pill, take the political hit and raise these revenues," Murphy said, adding that another bridge collapse "is a likelihood, and we don’t want that."

Lieder agreed: "I think we have to provide additional funds. ... It's really as simple as that."

Neither of the state lawmakers said that the I-35W bridge had been a priority. While reports from recent years said the bridge was "structurally deficient," other repair projects had a greater priority, a decision made in the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said emergency legislation to provide $250 million in funds for the repair and replacement of the I-35W bridge would be passed in the U.S. House before lawmakers went on their August recess.

Lieder acknowledged that had more money been available before the collapse, other projects still would have had a higher priority, but maybe the I-35W bridge could have been repaired sooner.