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This is your wake-up call … again

A worker looks at the collapsed portion of the Interstate 5 bridge at the Skagit River on May 24 in Mount Vernon, Wash. A truck carrying an oversize load struck the four-lane bridge on the major thoroughfare between Seattle and Canada, sending a section of the span and two vehicles into the Skagit River below on May 23. (AP photo by Elaine Thompson)

After the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board called it a wake-up call.

“This is a really significant event,” Debbie Hersman told The Associated Press, “and we need to learn from it, not just in Washington but around the country.”

Apparently, Hersman hit the snooze bar when the alarm went off at 6:05 p.m. Aug. 1, 2007. Many will remember that as the day the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring more than 100 others.

Of the 607,380 bridges in the U.S., about a quarter of them are deemed structurally deficient (66,749) or functionally obsolete (84,748), according to the Federal Highway Administration. In Wisconsin, 1,157 are structurally deficient and 779 are functionally obsolete.

There has been no shortage of attention paid to the need to repair bridges. There’s just no sense of urgency. When it’s time to crunch the numbers, lawmakers break out their trusty abaci and slide rules and decide many of those repairs can wait just one more year. There are other priorities, voters are told. We must have a streetcar line, some say. We have to invest in light rail, others insist.

But at what cost? What will be the ultimate price that finally motivates elected representatives to get serious about fixing bridges? Is it another I-35W tragedy? Or must it be a larger disaster?

To be sure, when faced with tens of thousands of bridges in need of repair, they all can’t be fixed in one fell swoop. And to be fair, bridge construction spending has more than doubled since 1998, from $12.3 billion to $28.5 billion last year, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. But that influx has reduced the backlog just 7 percent.

“The needs are so great that even with the growth we’ve had in the investment level, it’s barely moving the needle in terms of moving bridges off these lists,” Alison Premo Black, the association’s chief economist, told The Associated Press.

The Highway Trust Fund won’t bridge the gap, though. It’s expected to be insolvent next year. The fund, which provides states with construction aid, gets most of its revenue from federal gas and diesel taxes. Those taxes just aren’t getting it done anymore. People are driving less, and when they do, many are using more fuel-efficient cars. In the meantime, Congress and every president since Bill Clinton haven’t had the political stomach to raise the taxes.

Sounds like yet another excuse to hit the snooze bar.

Jeff Cota is copy editor of The Daily Reporter. He can be contacted at 414-225-1825 or at [email protected].

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