Friday, August 03, 2007

Will road privatization hucksters use the Minnesota bridge collapse tragedy to push private toll roads?

Federal, State Officials Respond to Collapse

U.S. House Vows Up to $250M in Aid


By Yvette Shields, Humberto Sanchez and Bond Buyer staff
The Bond Buyer
Copyright 2007

CHICAGO — The federal government would authorize up to $250 million of aid for emergency repairs and the reconstruction of the downtown Minneapolis bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River Wednesday under legislation unanimously approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee yesterday.

Approval of the bill by the full House was expected as soon as late yesterday, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota who also serves as the committee’s chairman. It is not clear when or if the Senate will take up corresponding legislation before it leaves for a monthlong August recess.

The bill would authorize $250 million in emergency funding for Minnesota under the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief program. However, Congress must still appropriate the funds to the program. The measure would also waive an annual $100 million per state cap on aid.

Under current law, the emergency relief program is provided with $100 million a year for aid. But the amount available for 2007 was been depleted by assistance provided to California. In April, a highway link to the Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed after a gasoline tanker truck overturned and erupted into flames. The U.S. DOT yesterday pledged the remaining $5 million in the program to Minnesota.

The eight-lane, 40-year-old bridge known as the Interstate 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis buckled and then collapsed Wednesday during the evening rush hour. Four people are confirmed dead and at least 80 were injured as of press time. The bridge handled more than 140,000 vehicles daily. The cause of the failure remains under investigation although Department of Homeland Security officials quickly ruled out terrorism as a cause.

Locally, rescuers shifted their activities Thursday from rescue to recovery. As many as 30 remain missing. Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for the immediate inspection of similar bridges with the truss design, although he said he did not know how many of the state’s nearly 13,000 bridges would be affected.

Local, state, and national authorities descended on the area yesterday. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said the agency had assigned 19 investigators to the probe which could take one year to complete. At a news conference in Minneapolis, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters made the announcement regarding the $5 million grant to help in recovery efforts, to reroute traffic, and for repair work.

Officials appeared perplexed by the bridge’s collapse as four reviews since 2001 raised some concerns over the structure and recommended repairs, but none found the bridge unsafe.

“There were no structural deficiencies identified in the bridge,” Pawlenty said at the news conference, noting that major repairs or a new bridge might be needed after 2020, based on the most recent state reports. Some resurfacing and other cosmetic work had been under way on the bridge at the time of the collapse, but no structural work was being done by the state.

The deck truss bridge relied on a cantilever design in which the deck rests on triangular metal girders supported by steel arches between the spans. The trusses, which support the bridge, are located below the decks. The bridge has a main truss and a floor truss below it that provides additional support. The bridge section that crosses the river includes three continuous spans.

A 2001 report conducted by the University of Minnesota Department of Civil Engineering for the state transportation department noted the “bridge’s deck truss system has not experienced fatigue cracking, but it has many poor fatigue details on the main truss and the floor truss system.”

A 2005 assessment of the bridge included in a U.S. DOT database on bridges found the bridge “structurally deficient.” The ranking does not however mean a bridge is unsafe. State inspections in 2005 and 2006 found no major problems with the bridge.

At a press conference yesterday, Oberstar acknowledged that while the cause remains unknown, more federal funding is still needed to ensure the safety of the nation’s bridges and transportation infrastructure. “This is a tragedy, in and of itself,” he said. “But to … ensure the safety and integrity of the nation’s bridges we have to make a more robust investment that we are doing now.” “This is yet another wake-up call,” Oberstar said, adding that the federal government provides $2 billion a year for the nation’s bridges.

A bill that he introduced in 2003 with then committee chairman Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, would have provided $375 billion for highways and transit construction, including $3 billion for bridges, over six years. But the bill stalled, in part, because the White House opposed a gas tax increase included in the proposal. Congress ultimately approved a $287 billion transportation bill. That law expires at the end of fiscal 2009.

There are nearly 592,473 bridges throughout the nation that receive federal funding, Oberstar said. Of that total amount, 75,621 are structurally deficient, which means they have deteriorated structural components, but are not necessarily unsafe. Some 79,000 are considered functionally obsolete, which means the bridge has older design features and while it is not unsafe for all vehicles, it cannot safely accommodate current traffic volumes, and vehicle sizes and weights, according to information Oberstar released.

In Minnesota there are 12,989 bridges, of which 1,140 are considered structurally deficient and 440 are considered functionally obsolete, Oberstar said. A report from the American Society of Civic Engineers earlier in the decade found about 160,570 bridges structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Market participants said they expected the collapse to focus the nation’s attention on the state of repair of bridges and infrastructure in general in the coming days and weeks. It remains to be seen how this tragedy will affect the recent trend of a growing number of international firms entering into public-private partnerships with states and localities to invest in infrastructure projects. This has coincided with a drop in available federal funds for such projects. Several investment banks have also diverted personnel and energy toward growing the P3 side of the infrastructure finance business.

But with the move toward more private involvement in the sector, there has been some backlash from voters and legislators, including Oberstar, who has warned that rampant construction of private toll roads operated by private companies could fragment an integrated transportation system and prove a disservice to American motorists and taxpayers.

Locally, the state has a strong record in funding infrastructure and a reputation for strong management of its infrastructure portfolio, according to Richard Ciccarone, head of Merritt Research Services LLC, which maintains a database of the average age of the nation’s infrastructure assets. The state’s assets also are not as old as in some states with large, older cities.

“Minnesota is not the place where you would expect a bridge to collapse” given its record, he said. “A tragedy like this will get people focused on infrastructure again.”

Standard & Poor’s issued a special report yesterday saying the collapse would not impact Minneapolis or the state’s triple-A credit ratings. The bridge was originally financed with state and federal funds. The state’s share came from general obligation borrowing that is repaid with the transportation-related fees and taxes in its trunk highway fund. Minnesota’s $4 billion GO portfolio includes $522 million of trunk highway GOs. The state will bear ultimate responsibility for rebuilding the bridge. The collapse, aside from emergency response efforts, should have “little financial implication” for the city, the agency said.

Minnesota includes funding for local bridge repairs and replacement on its biennial capital budgets that are primarily financed with GO borrowing. The 2006 budget included an appropriation of $52.5 million for local bridge replacement and repair. State voters last November approved a constitutional amendment dedicating additional motor fuel sales taxes to transportation projects from the general fund. Democrats also approved $1.5 billion of new transportation borrowing, but the governor vetoed it.

Fitch Ratings rates the city and state AAA and Moody’s Investors Service rates both Aa1.


Governors across the nation responded to the news of the Minneapolis collapse by ordering immediate inspections of their own bridges, especially those with similar designs; defending their records on investment and calling for additional funding.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was expected to make an announcement yesterday that would call better coordination among state agencies involved in bridge operation and management, including the New York State Thruway Authority, Department of Transportation, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bridges and tunnels.

New York City Department of Transportation deputy commissioner Lori Ardito said the city has spent $3 billion on maintaining its bridges over the past eight years and plans to spend $2 billion more over the next two years. Ardito sought to reassure New Yorkers on the safety of its bridges. “In New York we do not have any bridges that are structurally deficient,” she said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey owns and operates four bridges in the metropolitan New York City area: George Washington, Bayonne, Goethals, and Outerbridge Crossing. Biannual inspections of the George Washington and Bayonne bridges are under way now and expected to be completed in the fall. The other two bridges were inspected in 2006. Inspections during the last two years necessitated 19 emergency repairs on the bridges. The Port Authority’s 2007-2016 capital plan calls for $1.7 billion of state-of-good-repair projects.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has asked the state’s Deptartment of Transportation to prepare a report on the state’s bridges within the next 45 days detailing the ownership, rating, and condition of all bridges — including those operated by the state, counties, municipalities, and private entities — the inspection process, and how much it would cost to repair them.

Massachusetts’ Transportation Finance Commission released a report in March indicating that the commonwealth would need to spend $2.4 billion to bring roughly 500 bridges to a state of good repair. That figure does not include an additional $700 million to upgrade 10 “high cost bridges,” or bridges that require more than $20 million each in repairs.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich ordered state transportation officials and the Illinois Toll Highway Authority to conduct inspections of bridges with similar designs, those under construction, or ones that carry heavy traffic.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation has an eight-year program under way to replace or improve more than 800 bridges in the state, including several spans on interstate highways. The 2006 Legislature appropriated $125 million for bridge replacement programs, with $100 million to the state highway system and $25 million allocated for bridges on county roads.

Missouri, too, announced the inspection of 11 bridges with somewhat similar truss designs among the 10,000 bridges in the state highway system. Of the state’s bridges, more than 1,600 are considered structurally deficient, another 1,200 are considered functionally obsolete because of their design.

In Arkansas, a 2006 study that was updated last February the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department said of the state’s 7,120 highway bridges in the state, a total of 1,257 were in need of repair, rehabilitation, or replacement. Of those, 297 were considered structurally deficient and 960 were functionally obsolete. Total cost of the bridge replacement work is estimated at $1.6 billion. Last March, Gov. Mike Beebe signed a bill that calls for a statewide vote in November 2008 on authorization for up to $575 million of federal highway grant anticipation and tax revenue bonds to be issued by the Arkansas Highway Commission for various transportation projects.

Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri said the state was largely up to date with its bridge inspections. The governor had hoped to use $60 million of tobacco funds to finance road and bridge projects and leverage federal funds but the General Assembly rejected the proposal.

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