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Solution to bridge repair isn’t raising gas tax if Congress keeps diverting money out of Trust Fund

   The recent bridge collapses in northern Washington State and Southeastern Missouri – unrelated collapses within two days of each other – were sobering. Thankfully, no one died in either accident.
pg-20-Kerry-new-mug-shot   On May 23rd the Skagit (Interstate 5) Bridge, an hour north of Seattle, collapsed after being struck by an oversized truck with a tall load that was too tall to be driving on the bridge, which has a clearance of only 14.6 feet.  According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the truck struck a steel girder on the four-lane bridge, which carries an average of some 71,000 vehicles daily, was built in 1955 and carried a “satisfactory” and “fair” rating. Estimates to replace the span are at $15 million.
  Two days later near Cape Girardeau, Mo., a Union Pacific train hit the side of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train at a rail intersection, derailing and propelling two dozen rail cars into the support pillars of an interstate highway bridge. Estimates to replace the two 40-foot sections that crumpled total $3 million.
   These two bridge accidents, while markedly different, raises a key concern about transportation funding as the time once again nears for Congress and President Obama to agree upon the next multi-year federal transportation reauthorization bill.
   Why have Congress and the president still not made any apparent progress in coming up with a more realistic way to fund infrastructure than the Highway Trust Fund? One approach to the latest bridge collapse events is to view these incidents as cases for a lot more federal spending on infrastructure, a higher federal gas tax and maybe even an infrastructure bank (as the president has proposed) as means of combating the problem. That’s what we are hearing now, and what we heard six years ago in the wake of the tragic collapse in 2007 of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour that killed 13 people. At the time, Congress unsuccessfully leveraged that tragedy in a proposal to raise the gas tax.
   Another approach to these recent bridge collapses is to argue that the Highway Trust Fund (based upon federal gas taxes at the pump) hasn’t been a legitimate model for funding our nation’s bridges (and roads) for more than a decade, even if the dollars going into the fund were actually being allocated to bridges and roads. In 2010, for example (according to the U.S. DOT), only 17 percent of these revenues went to transit at all. The fund has a history of being raided for other purposes. Would raising the federal gas tax to put more money into the same fund (so more money can be misallocated) be a wise answer? I don’t think so.
   Both the Washington and the Missouri bridge collapses now appear to have been caused by external factors – by privately owned and operated vehicles striking these structures – not by the structural failure of the bridges themselves. I believe these incidents should not be used as a justification for new revenues, but rather as an urge to Congress and President Obama to greatly prioritize two things: 1) putting an end to the bleeding of dollars from the Highway Trust Fund to non-transportation needs; and 2) quickly and innovatively calling upon the brightest minds available to devise a business model that replaces the Highway Trust Fund before it goes belly up within the next two years, as experts predict it will.
   Our nation’s surface transportation needs (roads, bridges, mass transit and some rail) are covered under a bill extension that will expire in little more than a year. The current legislation, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act or MAP-21, became effective Oct. 1, 2012 and expires in September 2014. (It’s a two-year extension at the same funding level, $286.4 billion, as the previous four-year bill, SAFETEA-LU, which Congress approved for 2005-2009 under President Bush.) This deadline underscores the sense of urgency on an issue that really shouldn’t be partisan.
   The U.S. stands at a crossroads. The St. Louis region, in particular, watches with keen attention as Gateway to the West and as a global player in the international port, warehouse/distribution and cargo realms.
   One of our congressmen here in Southwestern Illinois, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), serves on the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, as did former long-time U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) for many years. Let Davis know what you think on this crucial issue.
   Kerry L. Smith is president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Business Journal. She can be reached at

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