News » World

Federal, state politicians hasten to help

The "incredible rumble" (as one witness described it) that was the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last Wednesday sent echoes through the chambers of the state's and nation's capitols...
By
  • Justin Horwath
August 08, 2007

The "incredible rumble" (as one witness described it) that was the Interstate 35W bridge collapse last Wednesday sent echoes through the chambers of the state's and nation's capitols.

Politicians on both the federal and state levels - and both sides of the aisle - responded swiftly to the collapse of a major vein of taxpayer-funded infrastructure that once carried an average of 140,000 vehicles per day.

The federal response: Emergency funding zips through Congress

Over the weekend, Congress secured a $250 million emergency funding package - $150 million over a previous cap for such appropriations - for relief and rebuilding efforts. President George W. Bush signed the bill Monday.

The bill, however, must pass through the congressional appropriations committees this fall before officials can sign a check to the state.

Jim Berard, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the chief sponsor of the bill and head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the $250 million package seems like a fair figure.

"This collapse with the bridge in Minneapolis just drove home … that there's a public safety component here. People's lives are at stake when they're crossing these bridges," he said. "We have to make sure that certainly our bridges and overpasses, as well as our highways, are not only large enough and wide enough and plentiful enough to carry the number of cars, but are also strong enough to withstand the load we're putting on them every day."

Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs who specializes in transportation policy, said all states are struggling to fund transportation infrastructure.

"This infrastructure doesn't last forever … you've got to make investments in it," he said.

Munnich added he thinks the federal funding is a "significant recognition that something needs to be done, that there's a federal as well as state responsibility for this."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., however, said she's not yet certain the emergency relief package is an adequate one.

"But it's certainly a better start than the limits that were in place," she said. "I know on the federal level, we'll be holding hearings to look at the nation's infrastructure. This isn't just about bridges, this is about roads."

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said in a statement immediate steps need to be taken to rebuild the bridge.

"By authorizing the reconstruction of the bridge, authorizing the project for emergency relief funding and providing assistance to ease congestion in the interim, we can begin this long but necessary process," he said.

The bill also provides $5 million in funds from the Federal Transit Administration to ease transit congestion.

First lady Laura Bush and President Bush visited the collapse site Friday and Saturday, respectively.

At the St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam, Bush said he couldn't promise a timetable for rebuilding the bridge, but said Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters will listen to local authorities and find out what is necessary to accommodate state needs.

"I'm here with the secretary of transportation because our message to the Twin Cities is: We want to get this bridge rebuilt as quickly as possible," he said. "I do promise that when (Peters) sees roadblocks and hurdles in the way of getting the job done, she'll do everything she can to eliminate them."

The state response: special session, gas tax possibility

Along with federal dollars, the state could see more funds for transportation through an increase in the gas tax, if Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty calls a special session to address the bridge collapse.

To Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, the possibility of a special session this fall is "very likely."

"I think there will be a fairly good-sized transportation bill," Pogemiller said. "And hopefully it will be enough to address this concern. There's just been so much deferred maintenance on our transportation system for years now that it's important now to capture the moment."

From what he's heard from legislative leaders and Pawlenty, Munnich said it is very likely the Minnesota Legislature will have a special session where lawmakers will pass a bill calling for a gas tax increase.

"This whole thing has raised a level of awareness among the public and I think also created strong incentives for political leaders to do something about it," he said. "There is going to have to be a pretty hard look at this, but I think there seems to be a growing consensus that more money is needed."

In an e-mail sent Friday, Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said, "We're reviewing all of the needs and options and we'll do whatever it takes to assist with the recovery and rebuilding efforts, including the possibility of a special session."

In May, Pawlenty vetoed a transportation package because it included a gas tax increase.

Lawmakers passed a "lights-on" transportation package instead, which allocated no new money for transportation agencies.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, who has been on the Transportation Committee for 15 years and has long rallied for a gas tax increase, said lawmakers are sometimes unwilling to allocate funds for basic infrastructure projects because they aren't "sexy."

"Politicians are kind of creatures of the political landscape," he said. "(Politicians) know that to do the appropriate things with any of these infrastructure issues … know that that doesn't get votes."

Murphy said last May, while lawmakers fiercely debated his transportation package, which would have implemented a five-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that the college-aged generation would have to pay for any bill that funds transportation through bonding.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Richfield, who voted for Murphy's transportation bill but didn't cast a vote to override the governor's veto on it in May, said he would like to see funds for the bridge to come from a combination of bonding and a gas tax, adding that it's important "we don't overreact."

"We have to keep in mind the amount that our citizens can afford to pay, too. I will be open to looking at all possible funding sources," he said. "Transportation funding has been running behind $1.5 billion every year what we need."

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she hopes the Legislature would look at a significant transportation funding bill.

"I would hope that we look at a significant gas tax, and indexing that gas tax for the future, so that you don't have this problem of going 20 years (without a gas tax increase)," she said.

The state's gas tax has remained stagnant since 1988.

On Tuesday, Pawlenty declared a state of peacetime emergency, in which the governor directs state agencies to provide in assistance for the relief effort.

The city response: coordinating departments

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he was elected in the primary on Sept. 11, 2001, and won his seat as mayor shortly thereafter.

"I immediately walked into a world that was very different than the one I expected when I started running for Mayor," he said.

He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency flew him and 70 others to Mt. Weather, Va., for three days to put them through a "simulated disaster."

"It was a very, very sobering experience for a new mayor, but it wound up incredibly valuable," he said.

There, he learned how to use the command center that lays out jurisdictions for different departments.

That includes overseeing the jurisdictions of the Minneapolis Police and Fire Departments, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, the Hennepin County Medical Center and Hennepin County Emergency Management.

Munnich said the response to the disaster has been satisfactory.

"I think clearly the emergency response has been very strong and very swift," he said. "I've been impressed with how quickly various organizations who have had some responsibility or interest in this whole thing responded."

Comment Policy

The Minnesota Daily welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.
Minnesota Daily Serving the University of Minnesota Community since 1900