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Oberstar says Bush supportive of bridge repair plan

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar views President Bush's dismissal of his proposal to raise the federal gasoline tax to repair deficient bridges as supportive, not as a veto threat.

"In fact, the president seems to support it," Oberstar, chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Thurs-day.

Oberstar, DFL-8th District, in Bemidji on Thursday to bike the Paul Bunyan Trail, a day earlier proposed a 5-cent increase in the federal 18.3-cent per gallon gasoline tax as a dedicated trust fund to inspect and repair or replace structurally deficient bridges.

His proposal comes a week after the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing at least six people and injuring more than 100.

Bush, in a news conference Thursday morning, dismissed the gas tax hike, saying Congress first needs to change how it spends highway money.

"The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first," Bush said. "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."

About $24 billion, or 8 percent of the last $286 billion highway bill, was devoted to highway and bridge projects singled out by lawmakers. The balance is distributed through grants to states, which decide how it will be spent. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.

"As I read the entire transcript (of the president's remarks), the president said there are needs and Congress first has to fix the way it appropriates and manages the Highway Trust Fund," Oberstar said.

"And we do that in this bill," the Democrat said.

He hopes to use the interim to work out the legislation, but it will contain four main components:

  • It significantly improves bridge inspection requirements.
  • It provides dedicated funding.
  • It distributes funds based on public safety and need. It prohibits congressional and administrative earmarks.
  • It establishes a trust fund, modeled after the Highway Trust Fund, to provide a dedicated source of revenue for the repair, rehabilitation and replacement of structurally deficient bridges. Revenues deposited in the trust fund will be available for no other purpose.

    "We're doing exactly what he said," Oberstar said of Bush's complaint. "We welcome his support."

    And if it's the concept of raising a tax that bothers Bush, Oberstar said he ought to learn from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has vetoed two bills with gas tax increases but now will consider one, in light of the I-3W tragedy, which involved a structurally deficient bridge.

    "I think the president needs to take a leaf from the governor's manual, and show his openness to the reality that to fix these bridges, you have to pay for it," Oberstar said. "It doesn't come from manna from heaven."

    A separate trust fund is created, he said, that answers the needs of structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System. The proposed 5-cent tax will generate about $8.5 billion annually for three years, and then is sunsetted to end.

    The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing structurally deficient bridges would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

    "The trust fund has a prohibition on earmarks by the Congress or the executive branch," Oberstar said, "either the president or the governors of the states."

    The bill also requires establishing new standards for evaluating structurally deficient bridges.

    It may take three months to establish those new standards, and then efforts would begin to "re-evaluate the 6,100 most vulnerable bridges -- of the 73,000 bridges that are structurally deficient -- in the National Highway System inventory of structurally deficient bridges," Oberstar said.

    Work to repair or replace would be prioritized by state, he said. "When that priority is established, we'll know what the cost estimates are for the rehabilitation, the reconstruction, the rebuilding of those bridges," he said. "The funds will flow to the bridges on that priority list."

    Oberstar pledged that "any tampering by either the House, the Senate, the White House or the governors will cause the fund to shut down."

    Evidence of earmarking would force the secretary of the treasury to stop disbursement of funds from the trust, Oberstar said.

    "We make this a transparent process, handled by bridge engineers, not by persons involved in setting legislative policy or executive branch policy," he said. "We leave it up to them to make the decisions and then let the funds flow to those needs and save lives in the future."

    The story includes material from The Associated Press.

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