NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Bridge Maintenance

By Sterling Burnett, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

In the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse in August, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) proposed a five-cents-per-gallon increase in the federal gas tax with a goal of raising $25 billion for critical bridge repairs across the United States.

While there are legitimate concerns about the safety of the nation's bridges and overpasses, increasing the federal gas tax is unnecessary. Congress can ensure the soundness of the nation's bridges without raising taxes, simply by shifting existing funds within the transportation budget.

The gas tax became law in the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act which established the Highway Trust Fund. The trust fund financed highway building and maintenance across the nation. Currently, the federal government imposes a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, while states levy additional gas taxes at rates ranging from a low of 8 cents per gallon in Alaska to a high of 44.4 cents per gallon in California.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 12 percent of the bridges in the United States require significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.

Despite past debate on the poor condition of the nation's bridges, the situation was largely ignored before the Minneapolis bridge collapse. As they have for decades, Congress diverted Highway Trust Fund dollars away from potentially life-saving construction and repair to pork-barrel and specially earmarked projects requested by individual members of Congress which bypass normal federal review and selection processes.

For instance, the 2005 highway bill contained $2 billion annually for bridge reconstruction. By contrast, Congress stuffed the bill with nearly 6,500 pork-barrel projects worth more than $24 billion -- about the same amount that Rep. Oberstar's proposed tax increase would raise - including High-priority transportation items like $5 million to improve air quality in the Sacramento, California, $4 million for bike paths and public park space in Calexico, Calif. And $4 million for streetscape, pedestrian improvements in Clarkson, Ga.

Indeed, according to Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, only 60 percent of federal gas taxes go to the construction and maintenance of highways and bridges. The other 40 percent goes to subsidize construction and maintenance of public transit facilities and other projects including bike paths, museums, nature trails, historic building repairs and schools.

Rep. Oberstar has stated, "If you're not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you." Ironically, Oberstar recently boasted that he had secured more than $12 million in funding for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill, none of which went for bridge repair. Instead, Obserstar would spend $10 million for a commuter rail line, $250,000 for a bike and hike trail, $200,000 for bus services in Duluth and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl.

Fifty years ago, the federal government played an important role in creating a national transportation system. The federal gasoline tax financed this effort by ensuring that drivers paid the costs of the system.

The Highway Trust Fund should be dedicated to building and maintaining roads and bridges. If trust fund spending was properly prioritized, bridge repairs could be funded by current fuel taxes, and the safety and pocketbooks of Americans would be better protected.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.