Report: After MN Collapse, Bridge Repair Got Just 11% of D.C. Earmarks

In the wake of the 2007 collapse of Minnesota’s I-35 bridge, Washington policymakers vowed
a renewed focus on repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure. But
weeks after the fatal collapse, Congress approved a transportation
spending bill with 704 earmarked projects, at a total cost topping $570
million — and just 11 percent of those earmarks went towards bridge
repair, according to a new report released today.

1030532519_c614bfbe27_o_thumb.jpgThe I-35 bridge collapse, above, killed 13 drivers. (Photo: America 2050)

Today’s
report, produced by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG),
contrasts the low amounts lawmakers set aside for bridge repair with
the flood of campaign contributions sent their way by highway,
development, automobile, and construction groups.

During
the election cycle that reached its peak in 2008, the year that bridge
repairs accounted for 74 of Congress’ 704 transportation earmarks, U.S.
PIRG found that road-building interests steered $80.3 million to
federal campaigns.

The same highway-centric groups also
lavished $53.5 million in campaign cash on state elections, in which
the costs of securing a victory are often much lower, according to the
report. Road-building interests split their federal donations more
evenly, steering 47 percent to Democrats and 53 percent to Republicans,
compared with a 61-39 split in favor of the GOP in state elections.

The report (available here)
separates donations from "transportation" versus "construction" groups
but does not name which lobbying entities U.S. PIRG singled out for
analysis, making it difficult to directly connect specific donations to
specific earmarks.

But the authors’ conclusion "that
elected officials often overlook preventative maintenance projects,
especially when new capacity projects are encouraged by campaign
contributions" was bolstered by an Associated Press investigation
one year after the Minnesota collapse. That AP probe found that just 12
percent of the deficient bridges getting the most state-level traffic
had received any attention other than regular maintenance.

"The
greatest need, for
almost every place, is investing in existing infrastructure," said Mark
Stout, who spent 25 years working on policy at the New Jersey DOT
before helping put together U.S. PIRG’s report.

"Each
earmark and each project has its own
story," he added, "but by and large, I think it’s safe to say that a
structurally deficient bridge is not going to rally around it a lot of
local elected officials and business interests that are
lobbying to make [repairs] happen. They sort of think that’s someone
else’s job or that
someone else is going to take care of it."

In
the U.S. PIRG report, several states stand out as facing a high number
of aging bridges that got scant attention from members of Congress.
Oklahoma lawmakers set aside just one earmark of $316,000 in 2008 for
their state’s 5,793 structurally deficient bridges, while Iowa
lawmakers got three earmarks worth $1.8 million for their state’s 5,153
deficient bridges.

Missouri, by contrast, was a relative
success story, with lawmakers winning four earmarks worth $5.4 million
for their state’s 4,433 deficient bridges. California, where the
closure of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge has sparked a fresh debate over
bridge safety, got six earmarks worth $3.5 million for its 3,140
structurally deficient spans.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from New York — where a capitol rally
for bridge safety was held this week after the sudden shutdown of a
span over Lake Champlain — did comparatively worse. The state had
2,128 structurally deficient bridges in 2008 but got just one earmark,
worth $294,000, to address the problems.

This year’s American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card found that
26 percent of the nation’s bridges are structurally deficient and
projected a $6.5 billion annual shortfall between actual bridge repair
spending and the amount needed to achieve significant safety
improvements.

The U.S. PIRG report does not include the
emergency aid that Congress rushed to appropriate for the Twin Cities’
bridge disaster. But it’s worth noting that Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar
(D), chairman of the House transport committee, initially proposed to take a step further by raising the federal gas tax by five cents to shore up creaking bridges. His plan quickly died for lack of support.