Bridge Collapse Likely to Fall on Deaf Ears in Congress -- Again

Congress unable to compromise on funding nation's ailing infrastructure.

May 24, 2013— -- It's almost as if Washington has seen this movie before: a bridge collapses, groups decry the nation's crumbling infrastructure and Congress does nothing.

Like the tragic Minneapolis, Minn., bridge collapse in 2007 that came before it, today's Mount Vernon, Wash., collapse is unlikely to spur Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into fixing roads and bridges, say advocates for infrastructure spending.

The political inertia in Washington around transportation funding and projects hasn't eased despite President Obama's nearly constant push for additional funding.

Obama renewed in February his nearly annual call for $50 billion in additional transportation and infrastructure spending as part of his 2014 budget request. But Republicans said the proposal amounted to an unfunded wish list.

To be sure, Congress did pass a highway transportation funding bill last year, but advocates say it's simply not enough. The bill allocated just enough money to keep transportation spending at status quo levels and it only funded projects for two years, as opposed to the usual five or six.

To maintain roads and bridges alone, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that every year $190 billion would need to be infused into the system, compared to the $103 billion now being spent.

Taking into consideration all of the country's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that about $3.6 trillion is needed by 2020 to fix the country's mounting problems.

And Obama keeps pushing for more infrastructure spending, arguing that the jobs construction projects create are good for the economy and good for business.

"When you ask companies who brought jobs back to America in the last few years, they'll say, if we upgrade our infrastructure, we'll bring even more," Obama said earlier this year at the port in Miami. "So what are we waiting for?"

The Mount Vernon, Wash., bridge that collapsed Thursday was considered "functionally obsolete" by the Federal Highway Administration. Although it's too early to say for sure, an oversized truck might have caused a section of the Interstate 5 highway to plummet into the Skagit River, taking two vehicles and a trailer with it, and injuring three.

As the White House is eager to point out, infrastructure spending is one of the few things that the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the labor union AFL-CIO can agree on.

"Infrastructure has always been non-partisan," said Rob Puentes, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "The reason that it's contentious in Washington is because the morning prayers are contentious in Washington."

And Republicans, who are deeply enmeshed in a battle with Democrats over where to cut spending, aren't eager to authorize new projects or, worse yet, raise the 18 cents per gallon gasoline tax that is being used to fund transportation projects.

States, Puentes said, have already taken matters into their own hands since Congress has proven that it won't do more. Puentes calls it a "silver lining."

"As everyone was looking for the federal government to respond, the states kind of did it themselves," Puentes said. "They are making progress. They are doing what they can with limited resources."

Perhaps in a nod to that shift from the federal government to state and local governments, Obama found a new Transportation Secretary for his second term in Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx.

"The federal government has got to be responsive and has to understand what it's like when you're a mayor or a governor or a county executive trying to get these projects up and running," Obama said when announcing Foxx's nomination.

"Which also means that we have the potential of continuing to streamline our approvals and get rid of some difficulties in permitting that slow projects down, because we want to get people back to work and we want to get this country moving."

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