Skagit River Bridge rallying point at hearing

Congress agrees infrastructure needs to be fixed, but plan remains uncertain

Gina Cole,

The Skagit River Bridge snagged Congressional attention Thursday morning, as a subcommittee on transportation appropriations grilled federal officials on how to fix the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and how to pay for those fixes.

A temporary replacement for the span of the bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River two weeks ago should be in place by June 20, with a permanent replacement done by Oct. 1, said Victor M. Mendez, administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.

“We intend to meet that deadline,” he said.

The bridge’s collapse has snarled traffic and stalled economic activity in the region, and fueled a national conversation about its failing infrastructure. The federal Department of Transportation has promised emergency funding for its repair.

Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the subcommittee on transportation appropriations, used Skagit as an example of the “devastation” that can occur when a major roadway is shut down by such an incident.

“Unfortunately, I know all too well what happened when our infrastructure fails,” she said, introducing the hearing.

Murray lamented efforts in Congress to “choke off” investments in transportation projects in favor of shorter-term budget fixes.

“We’re not really saving any money at all; we’re actually making things worse,” she said. “… If we don’t make investments now, we’ll be stuck with a much bigger bill down the road.”

The average age of a bridge in the United States is 42 years. About 70,000 of the nation’s 600,000-odd bridges have been deemed structurally deficient by the Federal Highway Administration. The 58-year-old Skagit River Bridge wasn’t one of them, but it was considered functionally obsolete, meaning if it were built today it would be built to stricter standards.

The bridge also is “fracture-critical,” meaning a failure at one point can cause larger portions of the bridge to fail. That’s what happened when an oversize load struck a truss while heading south on the bridge the night of May 23.

Being fracture-critical doesn’t in and of itself mean a bridge is unsafe, Mendez said at Thursday’s hearing. Requirements for steel toughness, welding quality and other construction elements are stringent, and highway officials inspect those elements regularly, he said.

If a bridge were unsafe, it would be closed, Mendez told the Senators.

For about an hour, the subcommittee questioned Mendez, along with Polly Trottenberg, undersecretary for policy with the Department of Transportation, and Phillip R. Herr, director of physical infrastructure issues for the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

A sticking point at the hearing was how to fund repairs or replacements for any of the nation’s aging roads and bridges. President Barack Obama has suggested using money freed up by military drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many members of Congress want to use that money for other things, and it hasn’t actually been earmarked for anything in particular, Trottenberg said.

Federal grant and loan programs have helped a bit, but there just isn’t enough money to go around, she said.

The Highway Trust Fund, which is where emergency money to fix the Skagit River Bridge is coming from, will soon be depleted, Trottenberg said. For years, Congress has put money from the nation’s general fund into the Highway Trust Fund to keep it solvent.

“This is clearly fiscally and politically unsustainable,” she said.

Herr told the subcommittee that large-scale bridge projects are “too expensive to be implemented with federal funds alone,” but many states face budget crises of their own.

Speakers at the hearing seemed to agree on the need for a long-term plan to fund surface transportation but reached no conclusion on what that plan would be.

The Skagit River Bridge collapse has been “an eye opener for everyone in my state,” Murray said. But challenges funding infrastructure are not unique to Skagit or Washington, she said.

“We’ll be looking very closely at that in the appropriations process,” she said.