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AASHTO Journal

Administration Hints at Transportation Funding During Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Bridge Collapse Hearing
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies held a hearing Thursday to examine Washington States I-5 Skagit River Bridge collapse and what the incident reveals about the state of the nations transportation infrastructure overall.

The hearing, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and formally titled Crumbling Infrastructure: Examining the Challenges of our Outdated and Overburdened Highways and Bridges, featured testimony by  Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, U.S. Department of Transportation Under Secretary for Policy Polly Trottenberg, and U.S. Government Accountability Office Physical Infrastructure Issues Director Phillip Herr.

Murray kicked off the hearing by discussing the effects of the bridge collapse on the community, but also stated that without transportation investment, events like the Skagit River bridge collapse could become more common.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of disaster we can expect to happen more often when our roads and bridges fall into disrepair, Murray said. It certainly should be a wakeup call that we need to invest in, repair and rebuild our aging roads, bridges, and highways.

Subcommittee members focused their questions on how to fund transportation infrastructure investment. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the subcommittees ranking member, noted the Highway Trust Fund could face insolvency without additional revenue and asked what other options were available to fund transportation. Sen. Collins suggested that previous Administration proposals to use war savings on transportation might not be realistic. 

"I understand your concern. We recognize that many have other ideas on how this will be spent," said Trottenberg, who added that the Administration had additional ideas on how to fund transportation, but that those funding proposals must be part of a larger bipartisan discussion on the overall federal budget. 

The subcommittee hearing comes just days after the National Transportation Research Board released its preliminary report on the Skagit River bridge collapse. The report states that a semitrailer overtook and passed a truck hauling an oversize load. The driver of the oversized load said he felt crowded by the passing semitrailer so he moved his vehicle to the right, colliding with portions of the bridge overhead.

Trottenberg, who agreed with Sen. Murray that additional investment would be critical, said that progress has been made in recent years to improve the nations transportation system.

Despite increased use, the condition of our nations highways and bridges has improved overall in recent years, as a result of new technology and techniques used in the design and construction of projects, as well as condition monitoring, Trottenberg said. But despite the departments rigorous oversight of bridges, a huge backlog of structurally deficient bridges remains.

Mendez, a former Arizona Department of Transportation director, began his remarks by assuring attendees that state transportation departments are keeping the public safe.

I can assure you that if we identify a bridge that is unsafe, we will take immediate action at the state level, whether we restrict it or close it, Mendez said. 

Meanwhile, House T&I Committee Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) in a letter to Secretary Ray LaHood called upon the USDOT to expedite the implementation of MAP-21 provisions that called for establishing bridge inspection standards and standards for bridge inspector training, as well as improving procedures for annually reviewing state compliance and reporting.

"FHWA's oversight of bridge safety programs is critical to improving State compliance with program requirements, ensuring uniformity among States, and strengthening highway bridge safety," Rep. Rahall wrote. "I urge you to expedite implementation of these new procedures and requirements, which will ensure consistency and transparency and improve compliance with bridge inspection standards."

Also this week, Washington State Department of Transportation officials announced that the state would reopen the bridge next week (see related AASHTO Journal story).

A full webcast of the hearing is available online

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6/14/2013
Questions regarding this article may be directed to editor@aashtojournal.org.