How Has Federal Bridge Policy Changed Since the I-35W Collapse?

December 15, 2017

Today was the 50th anniversary of the deadliest highway bridge disaster in U.S. history – the collapse of the “Silver Bridge” between Point Pleasant, West Virginia and Gallipolis, Ohio, which killed 46 people. Acting Federal Highway Administrator Brandye Hendrickson was among the dignitaries speaking at a memorial service.

In August 2007, in the immediate wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis,  Transportation Weekly published a lengthy article explaining how the Silver Bridge disaster almost 40 years beforehand had prompted Congress to establish the first-ever federal program to promote highway bridge safety and fund bridge safety upgrades. This program had evolved by 2007 and had become less safety-focused and more capacity-focused (and had been controversially earmarked by the 2005 highway bill – see “Bridge to Nowhere, The”).

In the immediate aftermath of the I-35W collapse, Congress seemed on the verge of expanding the existing highway bridge program, but over the next five years, attitudes towards how to best deal with the problems of bridge safety and capacity turned completely around and led to the MAP-21 law abolishing the bridge program entirely in favor of a more holistic performance-based highway-and-bridge asset management program.

Oberstar bill. In the immediate aftermath of the Minnesota bridge collapse, in addition to seeing that the I-35W bridge itself was replaced, House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman James Oberstar (D-MN) proposed an expansion of the existing highway bridge program focused on the 6,175 structurally deficient bridges on the National Highway System. An outline of the Oberstar proposal called for a second bridge program on top of the existing highway bridge program, this one to be called the NHS Bridge Reconstruction Initiative. It would provide contract authority drawn from its own new trust fund and funded by a not-yet-identified direct revenue stream. In addition to the new program and new money (to be distributed by a new, risk-based formula), the outline called for the Federal Highway Administration to tighten bridge safety inspection rules and techniques immediately. And Oberstar made a point of saying that earmarking of the new bridge program would be prohibited.

Oberstar did not actually introduce legislation on the issue until October 30, 2007. That bill (H.R. 3999) could not identify a revenue source or create a trust fund (committee jurisdiction reasons) and thus did not create a new program. The bill did tighten inspection standards and techniques and simply authorized the Appropriations Committees to appropriate up to $1 billion per year for fiscal 2008 and 2009 to the existing bridge program but confined solely to NHS bridges. The bill would also have prohibited states from transferring bridge formula money to other programs (a common practice in many states) unless the state could demonstrate to the Secretary of Transportation that the state has no structurally deficient bridges. This was opposed by state DOTs. And at the markup, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) made a strong argument for “tunnel parity,” asking for equal requirements for tunnel inspections and inventories.

H.R. 3999 was marked up by the T&I Committee on the following day – but, unusually for T&I, the committee did not actually file its report on the bill until the following summer. The bill was debated and amended by the House on July 23, 2008 and passed the following day by a vote of 367 to 55. The bill was reported by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in late September, but by that point the chance to get legislation through the Senate floor before the elections had closed. (The fiscal 2009 omnibus appropriations act, signed into law December 26, did contain a one-time $1 billion in bonus funding for the existing bridge program.)

But while the Oberstar bill (which essentially doubled down on the existing bridge program) was being delayed in 2007 and 2008, the whole notion of “a program for every problem” in the surface transportation field was being challenged.

The Commission plan. In January 2008, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission issued its final report to Congress. The blue-ribbon panel had been established by the 2005 SAFETEA-LU law to recommend ways to get highway and transit programs reauthorized after the expiration of SAFETEA-LU in 2009 (remember that it was the SAFETEA-LU law that intentionally set the Highway Trust Fund on a fiscally unsustainable course, and the Trust Fund was predicted at the time to run out of money just after SAFETEA-LU’s end).

The working majority of Commission members (which excluded its chairman, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, and two other Republican appointees) wanted an immediate gasoline and diesel tax increase as a temporary measure towards a new user-based revenue system down the line. But they recognized that even in their most optimistic scenarios, after the public relations disaster caused by the over-earmarking of funds under SAFETEA-LU, major programmatic reforms would be necessary to get the political support for a gas tax increase.

One major area of reform proposed by the Commission was an end to the proliferation of different surface transportation programs. The report suggested consolidating the 108 different programs run by FHWA, FTA, FRA, FMCSA and NHTSA into just ten multi-modal programs.

In dollar terms, the biggest proposed change was a focus on performance-based asset management across different types of assets. The report suggested creating a new “National Asset Management Program” to cover:

Federal-aid Highways, including the Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways and the National Highway System, major transit assets, intercity passenger and freight rail lines, and network connectors between our modes that complete the overall system. This program underlies all of the other recommended programs, and would need to be closely coordinated with them. The USDOT would define appropriate performance standards for each facility type, in conjunction with States and stakeholders. The full range of stakeholders (including system owners, operators, and users) would be convened by each State Department of Transportation and public transit operator. This group would use its participants’ plans based on information that inventories shortcomings in the physical infrastructure in order to develop estimates of the cost to restore these facilities, putting into place best practices of capital budgeting with full consideration of life-cycle costs.

Bridges would no longer have their own separate funding program: instead they would be just another asset, but the performance standards, ideally, would protect the safety aspect that got the bridge program created in the first place.

Reauthorization proposals. The Commission’s focus on performance-based asset management caught on (although the proposal to bring highways, mass transit, passenger and freight rail under the same funding umbrella did not). Six months after the Commission released its final report, the George W. Bush Administration released its legislative proposal for the reauthorization of highway and transit programs (not due until the following year, but Bush would be out of office by then). While the Bush plan dodged the issue of new tax revenues, it did echo the program consolidation theme of the Commission report, including the combination of Interstates, NHS and the bridge program into a new “Federal Interest Highway Program.” A lame-duck Administration facing a Congress controlled by the opposing party of course could not get its reauthorization bill considered.

But the next year – the year in which SAFETEA-LU expired – was the year that Jim Oberstar had been waiting for for most of his adult life. He was finally chairman of the Transportation Committee and would get to write his own reauthorization bill. The reauthorization bill that Oberstar released in June 2009 represented a major about-face from the bridge bill he had introduced in October 2007. Instead of expanding the existing highway bridge program, the Oberstar reauthorization bill would have combined the existing bridge program, Interstate maintenance program, and National Highway System program into a new “Critical Asset Investment Program.” States would be given performance targets (percentage reductions in the number or area of deficient bridges and the number of Interstate or NHS lane-miles rated as below-average) and would be able to allocate funds from the program to meet those targets as the state saw fit. The bill also contained a version of the upgraded bridge inspection standards and inventories proposed in the original Oberstar bridge bill.

Oberstar was never able to move his dream bill – the Obama Administration insisted on postponing surface transportation reauthorization until 2011, and the Democratic loss of the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections (which also cost Oberstar his seat in the House) sealed the issue.

MAP-21. In November 2011, Senate Environment and Public Works chairman Barbara Boxer (D-CA) introduced the “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act,” or MAP-21. The introduced version of the bill created a new National Highway Performance Program out of the old IM, NHS and bridge programs. The bill directed USDOT to create a series of highway and bridge performance measures for use across multiple programs (in 23 U.S.C. §150). To ensure that states did not use their new flexibility to shortchange bridge safety, the bill directed USDOT to set minimum standards for NHS bridge condition, and if any state fell below that measure for two consecutive years, the state was directed to start spending as much of their NHPP money on bridges as they did when the bridge program still exited in FY 2009.

Section 1111 of the introduced version of MAP-21 also contained requirements for upgraded bridge and tunnel inventory and inspection standards, which would help inform the performance measures that would in turn determine how much of their NHPP money states might have to spend on bridges.

The Senate did not significantly amend these provisions on the floor before passing the bill, and the House started at a major disadvantage because Transportation and Infrastructure chairman John Mica (R-FL) could never get the votes to pass the bill that the Republican leadership and he wanted. That legislation (H.R. 7) would also have gotten rid of a separate bridge funding program, instead beefing up the NHS program or the larger Surface Transportation Program but also with a new minimum bridge investment in section 1115 of the bill that would kick in if more than 10 percent of the state’s NHS bridge deck area or more than 15 percent of the deck area of off-system bridges was classified as structurally deficient.

The final MAP-21 law largely resembled the Senate bill. The separate program for bridge funding, in existence in one form or another since 1970, was abolished and folded into the larger National Highway Performance Program. In the final legislation, no more than 10 percent of the total NHS bridge deck area can be rated as structurally deficient without triggering financial minimums on bridge performance. (However, the process of drafting the performance measure regulations has taken so long that the program has yet to be fully implemented.)

Today. The work of the Commission, and of Congress in MAP-21, was a major step away from the “let’s fund a special program” approach to solving every problem that has often been popular in Congress. MAP-21 did make a serious dent in the total number of highway, transit and safety programs, some of which had definitely become redundant. And the focus on bridges as just another form of transportation asset to be managed, under risk-based and data-driven parameters, has continued the steady progress that has been made by states over the last 25 years in decreasing the number of structurally deficient bridges on U.S. roads. When BTS started its dataset in 1990, almost 25 percent of the total number of U.S. highway bridges were rated structurally deficient. Last year, that number had dropped below 10 percent, despite the fact that Congress abolished the special program dedicated to bridge funding in 2012.

(See also this timeline of major moments in federal bridge policy.)

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