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US Lawmakers Looking for Ways to Improve Bridge Safety

A new U.S. Transportation Department report shows that more than 12 percent of the nation's bridges are structurally deficient. The findings have prompted some lawmakers to demand increased funding from the federal government to repair the bridges. But government officials say there are other ways to improve the nation's aging transportation infrastructure. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.

The deadly collapse of a major highway bridge in the midwestern U.S. state of Minnesota last month has focused attention on the nation's 600,000 bridges. A Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) report shows that more than 70,000 bridges are structurally deficient.

Democratic Congressman James Oberstar of Minnesota wants to hike gasoline taxes by 4.5 percent to ensure the safety of all U.S. bridges. "Addressing the needs of bridges is critical to public safety, regional mobility, to national mobility to economic competitiveness. It demands a national response."

But Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says more money is not the answer. Federal dollars for maintaining the nations transportation infrastructure has doubled since 1991. "Increasing federal taxes and spending would do little, if anything, to address either the quality or the performance of our roads. Instead we need a more basic change in how we analyze spending options and manage existing resources more efficiently."

Peters says part of the problem is increased traffic congestion that keeps many of the nation's bridges operating at full capacity. Peters cited a D.O.T. survey which reports that half of the motorists during peak traffic times are not commuting to work.

The suggestion prompted a heated exchange with Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio: "OK," began the congressman, "so the bottom line is you think we don't need more federal investment, we need congestion pricing. We force people off the road and we need more private, public partnerships. That's your alternate financing that you've talked about?

Peters: "I wouldn't say it exactly like you did."

Defazio: "Would you agree that there's any need for more federal investment, just a smidgen [small amount]?"

Peters: "Sir, there may well be, but, first, our first obligation to the American taxpayer is to spend the dollars we have at the highest priority level."

Thirteen people died in the bridge collapse in Minnesota. The bridge had been rated as structurally deficient since 1990. Secretary Peters denies there is a safety crisis. She says the number of structurally deficient bridges has declined seven percent since 1994.