House bill targets bridge safety

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A House bill addressing bridge safety — approved Thursday, July 24, by a wide margin, 367 to 55 — would require the Federal Highway Administration and the state transportation departments to develop plans to begin repairing and replacing bridges that pose the greatest risk to the public.

The National Bridge Reconstruction and Inspection Act of 2008 (H.R. 3999) — sponsored by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) — also would require FHWA to develop new bridge inspection standards and techniques that utilize the best technology that is available.

“We are approaching the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the I-35W bridge,” said Oberstar, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “On Monday, I toured the construction site of the new I-35W bridge, and I was amazed at the progress that is being made. But we owe the victims and the survivors of that tragedy much more than a new bridge — we owe them a new bridge policy that ensures that the traveling public is safe.”

One of the toughest provisions of Oberstar’s bill requires states to certify they do not have any structurally deficient bridges on the federal interstate system before they can shift federal bridge funds to other programs. “It is time to begin systematically repairing and replacing those structures,” said Oberstar, citing statistics that show more than 72,000 structurally deficient bridges in the United States.

A recent T&I Committee study found that many states have diverted federal Highway Bridge Program funding to purposes other than maintaining, repairing and replacing bridges. “My legislation sends a clear message to the states — fix your most critical bridge issues first, and certify you’ve done that,” Oberstar said. “Then you can transfer those remaining dollars elsewhere. I think we want accountability from the states.”

H.R. 3999 authorizes an additional $1 billion in funding for states to begin addressing the problem of structurally deficient bridges. “This bill is a good first step,” Oberstar said. “Next year, we will begin work on a new surface transportation bill that will fund all of the nation’s roads and bridges for the next six years. That bill will include a comprehensive program to address the problem of structurally deficient bridges in that legislation.”