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Senate Prioritizes Crumbling Bridges

Monday, July 29, 2013

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Bridges that need some urgent TLC could see an extra boost in funding after the Senate passed an amendment to its proposed transportation and housing bill prioritizing bridges in critical condition.

On Wednesday (July 24), the Senate passed an amendment to give crumbling bridges first dibs on funding in its bill, S.1243, "Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2014," or "THUD," which allocates $500 million for bridge repairs through Sept. 30, 2015.

crumbling bridges
Federal Highway Administration

A new amendment to the Senate's proposed transportation appropriations bill would give priority funding to structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, narrowing the number of bridges that qualify for the funding by 75 percent.

It's been a busy week for THUD, with the White House releasing position statements about the bill on both Monday (July 22) and Tuesday (July 23) and President Obama putting the issue front and center during his speech in Jacksonville, FL, on Thursday (July 25).

Priority Funding

The amendment deals with the section of THUD that provides for discretionary grants to states, which currently gives  priority to projects on the national highway system or those expected to "provide significant safety or economic benefits."

The amendment would expand that safety and economic criteria to add "bridges that the Federal Highway Administration has classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."

"We all know that the federal government's highway trust fund dollars are stretched very thin, and not enough is reaching the core infrastructure needs. ... We've got to be very careful and resourceful on how we spend those funds," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who introduced the amendment.

"By ensuring that endangered bridges along our National Highway System receive priority access to the funds in the 'Bridges in Critical Condition' section of this legislation, adoption of this amendment is a step in the right direction to ensuring that these bridges' critical problems are adequately addressed," Portman said in a statement.

The amendment will narrow the number of bridges that qualify for priority funding by 75 percent, according to Portman's website.

White House Takes Sides

The White House released a statement on Monday showing strong opposition to the House version of the THUD bill, H.R. 2610.

"The bill severely undermines critical investments in economic and community development programs that drive local innovation, while also significantly reducing resources for public improvements," the statement reads.

The statement contends that if the President is presented with the House bill, his senior advisors will recommend that he veto it.

President Obama
Official White House photo by Pete Souza

President Obama talks with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx aboard Air Force One during the flight to Jacksonville, FL, July 25.

On Tuesday, the White House released another statement "strongly" supporting the Senate's version of the bill, saying that it "enables critical investments" and "makes important investments in transportation infrastructure that will help to fix America's crumbling roads and bridges."

There is a $10 billion difference between the Senate bill, which appropriates $54 billion, and the House bill, which appropriates $44 billion, a $7 billion cut from last year's spending.

What Would Lincoln Do?

President Obama spoke in Jacksonville, FL, on Thursday, where he discussed infrastructure development, including the THUD bill.

"There's a bipartisan bill in the Senate to fund critical improvements in our highways and our bridges, our transit and rail systems and our ports. ... And so the House should act quickly on that bill," Obama said.

Saying that strong infrastructure is the "key ingredient to a thriving economy," and infrastructure funding is not a partisan issue, he then invoked the progressiveness of the first Republican President of the U.S., Abraham Lincoln.

"He [Lincoln] had a whole lot of things to worry about—had a Civil War, probably the biggest crisis that this country has ever experienced. And yet, in the middle of that, he was still thinking about how do we build that Transcontinental Railroad? How are we going to widen our canals and our ports so that we can move products all around the country and eventually the world?"

Panama Canal expansion
Pancanal.com

The Panama Canal expansion highlights the need for development of U.S. ports, Obama said.

According to Obama, the U.S. is spending less on fixing infrastructure than China and Germany. He also said that the country is spending less on rebuilding America than it was two decades ago, despite that it is currently "cheaper to build than it's been since the 1950s."

Remaining Competitive

Over the next few years, the U.S. will also need to focus on developing and rebuilding ports that can handle larger ships.

The Panama Canal expansion will bring supertankers to the East Coast, Obama noted. "If we want our workers and businesses to compete, then our ports have to be ready to receive those supertankers. Otherwise, they'll go to Brazil or some other place," Obama said.

The Panama Canal expansion project is expected to double the capacity of the Panama Canal by 2015 and is expected to create demand for ports to handle larger, post-Panamax ships.

"We can't defer things that we know we're going to have to do and, by the way, would put people to work right now doing them. ... You've got a whole bunch of construction workers who are looking for work right now."

(In June, the U.S. construction unemployment rate dropped to 9.8 percent—the best June figure in five years.)

   

Tagged categories: Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Funding; Infrastructure; President Obama; Roads/Highways; Transportation

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