WASHINGTON – The Senate approved $1 billion on Monday to speed repair and replacement of America's crumbling network of bridges, six weeks after the Interstate 35W span collapsed in Minneapolis.
The Senate approved the funds on a 60-33 vote as the Senate began debate on a $104.6 billion measure funding transportation and housing programs for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
"Our bridges are deteriorating far faster than we can finance their replacement," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lead sponsor of the bridge-repair funds. "More than one in every four bridges on U.S. highways is rated as deficient."
If approved, the Democratic plan would boost federal funding next year for bridge repair and replacement by 20 percent, but would make barely a dent in the $65 billion nationwide backlog of bridge repairs identified by the Department of Transportation.
The underlying bill faces a veto threat from President Bush, however, for exceeding his request by $4.4 billion.
"Fully 27 percent of our 600,000 bridges have aged so much that their physical condition or their ability to withstand current traffic levels is simply inadequate," Murray said. "Roughly half of these deficient bridges — or about 78,000 bridges across the nation — are structurally deficient."
The infusion of bridge repair funds would be paid for by tapping the dwindling reserves of the highway trust fund. Gasoline tax revenues are coming in below estimates and are unlikely to be able to fund highway programs at the levels set forth by the 2005 highway bill.
Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., countered that lawmakers "should not overreact to the Minnesota bridge collapse by spending more money ... than is available."
The money would not go to replacing the fallen Minneapolis bridge; rather, it would be delivered to state highway departments according to a funding formula set by Congress two years ago.
Congress moved immediately last month to pass a law approving a $250 million replacement bridge. But that legislation simply authorized the bridge but did not provide actual funding.
It wasn't clear Monday whether Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman, a Republican, or Amy Klobuchar, a freshman Democrat, would seek to fund the Minneapolis bridge during debate on the transportation spending bill. Another option under consideration by Minnesota lawmakers is to try to add funds to replace the Minneapolis bridge to an upcoming measure to further fund the war in Iraq.
"I'm looking to find a bill that will not be vetoed," said Coleman.