Bush To Congress: Prioritize Better

Perhaps George Bush reads the polls over at KSTP. Yesterday he told Reps. James Oberstar (D-MN) and Don Young (R-AK) that he would veto any gas-tax increase Congress passes until it reforms the way it appropriates money for transportation:

President Bush said Thursday that he would be opposed to any steps by Congress to increasing the gasoline tax to raise revenues for national bridge repairs in the wake of Minneapolis’ bridge collapse.
“Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities,” Bush said, accusing lawmakers of focusing on their own parochial concerns above such national concerns as bridge conditions. …
The president’s comments came in response to an idea proposed by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who said the country has as many as 500 bridges of the same design as the one that collapsed in Minneapolis.

It wasn’t just Young. Oberstar, whose pork projects on transportation tend to focus on bike paths, also has called for a tax increase to address potentially failing bridges. Young mentions 500 of these as critical, having the same design as the St. Anthony Bridge. Neither of them nor their colleagues had any concern over this issue in 2005, when they larded down the transportation bill with 6,300 earmarks, including 147 for Minnesota alone — and none of them apparently addressing failing bridges.
In fact, we can now take a look to see how these two Congressmen voted on anti-pork measures. Oberstar does better than 105 Representatives who got a zero on this RePork Card (84 of them Democrats), with a whopping 2%. Forty-nine times out of 50, Oberstar voted to keep earmarks viable and secret, the exact kind of poor prioritization of which Bush speaks. Don Young didn’t do much better, coming in at 6% on anti-pork legislation.
Minnesota has a $2.2 billion annual budget for transportation. We still don’t know why the bridge failed. We can’t very well start spending money on solutions if we don’t understand the cause, and we can’t tell whether we allocate enough money for transportation until we know what would have prevented this collapse. We should inspect all of the Warren truss bridges immediately to see if we find any problems, but we don’t need a 5-cent gas-tax increase to do $5 million worth of inspections — and that’s doubling the $5,000 average rate for bridge inspections in Minnesota. Let’s quit demanding more money for a bad appropriation process until we know what really happened.
UPDATE: Five hundred bridge inspection at $10,000 each is $5 million. Another case of editing through a couple lines of thought and winding up with drivel. Thanks to Bryan for pointing out one of the series of goofs that led to the wrong number.

Foreshadowing Of Disaster In Cleveland?

Yesterday, I wrote about the NTSB’s new interest in the gusset plates that held the St. Anthony Bridge’s girders together as a possible cause of its collapse. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports today on a near-collapse of an Ohio bridge that started with construction work and ended with failed gusset plates eleven years ago (h/t: CQ commenter Mike):

Two failed bridges. Two scarily similar scenarios.
Last week, the Interstate 35W span over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed under the weight of rush-hour traffic and construction crews. Federal investigators now wonder whether the design of steel plates joining beams is to blame.
Eleven years earlier, the eastbound I-90 bridge over the Grand River in Lake County failed. The reason: the same steel plates, called gussets. They had corroded, then buckled after crews blasted them during painting preparations. …
The spans are Warren truss bridges, made of diagonal compression members joined by gussets. Both bridges are nonredundant, meaning that if one part fractures, the whole structure can fall down. At the time of the failures, both bridges had work crews and equipment weighing them down.

Was this a missed warning sign? It’s hard to know for sure. The NTSB apparently didn’t think so at the time, and they had some good reason for that conclusion. The Ohio bridge incident differed in some particulars. For one, it wasn’t rated for the kind of heavy construction equipment that the crew had parked on it during the work. Secondly, they used steel shot to blast away corrosion from the superstructure during the work, which seriously degraded the integrity of the gusset plates. Nothing like that had been done to the St. Anthony Bridge before its collapse.
Still, the similarities seem rather compelling. Once the Ohio bridge had one gusset plate fail, a number of them bowed outward. No one seems to know why the entire bridge didn’t fail, but it did sink three inches and had to be closed for almost six months. It calls into question whether the NTSB should have reconsidered the Warren truss design and warned states of potential issues with the thickness of gusset plates on similar bridges, such as the St. Anthony Bridge in Minneapolis. Ohio focused more of their inspection on these plates after the 1996 incident, but the word did not appear to get to other states.
There are no national specifications for gusset plates, either. Designing support structures is part science and part art, as designers have to assume many variables for use, traffic weight, age, and corrosive elements in the environment. However, the St. Anthony Bridge had a uniquely long span over the river with no center supports. As the Plain Dealer notes, there are no charts for correct specifications on gusset plates.
In other news, divers retrieved three bodies from the river yesterday, including a mother and he baby and a man who died trying to save others:

Peter Hausmann, a father of four from Rosemount, survived the collapse and escaped from his van into the murky, turbulent waters, according to a source involved with the investigation. In the resulting chaos, he apparently swam toward victims in another vehicle in an attempt to render assistance, the source said. …
Hausmann spent about three years doing missionary work in Kenya and maintained ties to Africa, working on AIDS projects and building a church. If he was trying to rescue someone, it would be typical of Hausmann’s selflessness, his friends and co-workers said. “Pete is the type of guy who would do anything to help someone,” said Jeff Olejnik, Hausmann’s boss at Assurity River Group in St. Paul.
Another friend echoed that sentiment. “That would be Pete,” said Gerry Fisher, a friend and former co-worker of Hausmann. “If there was a last act of Pete on this Earth, that certainly would be consistent [with who he was].”

The other two victims identified were Somali immigrant Sadiya Sahal and her 22-month old daughter Hana. The Star-Tribune has a heartbreaking photo of Sadiya and Hana, and published a portion of a letter Sadiya wrote about how excited she was to come to America for a better life. Both stories put the tragedy in stark personal terms, and reminds us how many people will need healing and support from this community.
UPDATE: Numerous commenters and e-mailers point out the obvious, which is that the salt water mentioned in the article would have come from road salt during the winter, which is also true here in Minneapolis. I took out that “difference” from the paragraph above. Also, the other gusset plates bowed outward, not “blowed”.

Poll: No New Gas Tax

It didn’t take long for people to demand higher gas taxes after the collapse of the St. Anthony Bridge. One local crank managed to hold his water for an entire six hours before blaming Governor Tim Pawlenty and tax-restraint activists for killing people on the “death bridge” in the pages of the Star Tribune. It seems that old cranks are in the minority in Minnesota, however, as KSTP’s new poll discovered (via Mitch and Freedom Dogs):

Many politicians have called for the gas tax increase to shore up aging highways and bridges.
“This is really a call to action and this is a duty that we need to fulfill on behalf of the memory of people who’ve lost their lives,” House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said.
But so far, it appears most Minnesotans don’t agree. Fifty-seven percent of people surveyed say the state should not increase the state gas tax. Only 38 percent say it should go up.

As always, the internals are even more interesting. Large majorities credit Governor Tim Pawlenty for his handling of the disaster. Only among Hispanics does he get less than a majority of favorable opinion. Otherwise, he ranks high in every demographic, including 70% of Democrats and 63% of self-identified liberals on his way to 75% approval overall.
Interestingly, Minnesotans approve of George Bush’s handling of the disaster as well. He gets a 65% rating overall, but less strength in the demographics. Forty-six percent of Democrats approve and 49% disapprove, but he gets 63% from independents, and 65% overall.
But the internals on a tax increase should make the state’s political class take notice. As KSTP reported, 57% oppose new tax increases at all, compared to 38% who want some increase. That majority holds in every single demographic in the poll, except for people 55 and older. Eighty-nine percent of blacks and 90% of Hispanics oppose it. More Democrats and independents oppose it than Republicans. Liberals oppose it 60%-36%. More women than men oppose it. And every region opposes it as well, especially the more liberal northeast, where 71% said no to higher gas taxes.
And that’s not the end of the surprises. KSTP asked whether any increase in taxes should be used solely for roads and bridges, or whether it should fund mass-transit options. Two-thirds of Minnesotans rejected the mass-transit option, with majorities in every demographic except among blacks. Democrats stood 57% opposed to funding mass transit, and self-described liberals opposed it 52%-46%.
If the government of Minnesota is listening, the message is no new taxes. Let’s find out what caused the bridge collapse — and then let’s find out what Minnesota did with its $2.2 billion annual MnDOT budget instead of automatically assuming we need to demand even more money from taxpayers.
UPDATE: Let’s get some links to local bloggers on the story:

  • Psychmeister issues the call to contact your state legislators.
  • Gary Gross takes a look at the political implications of the poll.
  • Michael Brodkorb is also looking at the internals.
  • King’s looking at the Mee Moua Strategem.
  • Andy Aplikowski says it’s almost like government is out of touch with the people. What a shock!
  • Gary Miller says a tax hike would be akin to admitting complicity.
  • David “Death Bridge” Strom wonders whether this will be the next Wellstone Memorial.
  • UPDATE II: I really fouled up the last paragraph, as James Hymas points out in the comments. Of course we need to replace the bridge. This is what happens when one edits and forgets to re-check. Thanks, James, for pointing it out.

    Gusset Plates And Heavy Weights

    The investigation into the collapse of the St. Anthony Bridge has taken an intriguing and somewhat unexpected turn. The NTSB has issued an alert based on a potential design flaw that could have caused the catastrophic collapse — and that no inspection would likely have caught:

    Federal officials investigating the Interstate 35W bridge disaster said Wednesday that they are looking at a possible design flaw in some of the steel plates under the bridge and issued an alert that added weight from construction work may have been a factor in its collapse.
    Opening a new window into last week’s fatal bridge collapse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that one of its areas of inquiry involves the design of steel connecting plates known as gusset plates; the material makeup of those plates; and the loads and stresses they bore.
    Hours later, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said the NTSB indicated that the stress on the bridge’s gusset plates may have been a factor in the bridge collapse and that one possible stress may have been the weight of construction equipment and materials on the bridge.
    Peters issued the first national alert to stem from the disaster, telling bridge engineers nationwide to “carefully consider the additional weight placed on bridges during construction or repair projects.” An NTSB official stressed again that the probe is in its early stages and that the design of the gusset plates is just one of many areas of inquiry.

    From the beginning, people wondered whether the construction activity on the bridge contributed to its failure. The work had nothing to do with the underlying structure of the bridge, however, and that appeared to be merely a coincidence. The NTSB apparently doesn’t believe in coincidences.
    So far, though, the construction team doesn’t appear to have done anything unusual. In resurfacing projects, it’s not unusual to have the raw materials dumped nearby for easier access by the crews. As the Star Tribune notes later in the story, that same material would have been mixed as concrete later and applied to 1/16th of the bridge surface, which would have only distributed the weight somewhat more broadly. Even if the material weighed 100 tons, it would not have been as heavy as three fully-loaded semis, which travel over that bridge constantly.
    The gusset plates also came under suspicion yesterday. The NTSB observed a “design issue” on one in the wreckage, but refused to specify the issue or location. The paper reports that investigators believe the plates were too thin for the loads they had to handle. The bridge managed to stay up for 40 years, but increasing traffic and heavier loads may have caused one to fail — and since the bridge had no redundant support systems, one failure in the right place could have caused the catastrophic collapse.
    Would inspections have caught this problem? If it was a design flaw, one would suspect that all of the gusset plates would have had the same problem and may not have shown signs of failure until one actually broke. The New York Times reported that a consultant hired by MnDOT after the collapse identified the problem, but MnDOT says that they have no such report. Earlier reports and consultant recommendations did not focus as much on the gusset plates as they did on other parts of the metal, especially the girders themselves.
    If the collapse came from a gusset plate failure, especially one where no inspection revealed any problem, then increased inspections probably would not have helped. It seems more likely that the design of this bridge had more to do with its early failure, and that other bridges of the same or similar design should have immediate attention.

    Inspection Reports Show Pier Changes

    Inspection reports on the St. Anthony Bridge show one of the pier supports had shifted in 1996, and made numerous observations of cracks and fatigue in the approach spans in the years since. MnDOT repaired most of these, but the bridge continued to show more significant problems in the years approaching its devastating collapse:

    State bridge inspectors warned for nearly a decade before its collapse that the Interstate 35W bridge had “severe” and “extensive” corrosion of its beams and trusses, “widespread cracking” in spans and missing or broken bolts.
    Not only was the superstructure in poor condition, but certain components were “beyond tolerable limits,” and one of the bridge’s piers had “tilted to the north,” they reported.
    By 2000, the inspectors wrote that “eventual replacement of the entire structure would be preferable” to redecking the bridge. They added: “If bridge replacement is significantly delayed, the bridge should be re-decked.”
    That recommendation was repeated in every report afterward, but it never happened.

    If the inspectors recommended replacement of the bridge, that recommendation did not make it out of MnDOT. Governor Tim Pawlenty insists that MnDOT has consistently recommended replacement in 2020, and that he, former Governor Jesse Ventura, and state legislatures over the last several years relied on MnDOT’s decisions in this arena. MnDOT, which did not send anyone to answer questions at the various press conferences, insist that they made repairs to specific areas of concern of the inspectors, and that replacement did not get considered because the main truss spans did not show any fatigue or cracking.
    This could be true, and the bridge still could have failed. As I noted before, the design lacked redundancy, something that apparently did not get calculated into the recommendations from MnDOT. The bridge could have suffered a failure somewhere away from those main truss spans and still have brought about a collapse. Newer and older bridges have redundant supports that would prevent this, but bridges built in the post-WWII era to around 1970 did not.
    One point will certainly cause some curiosity. The main truss spans connected to the piers on either end of the bridge. If one of those piers began to tilt in 1996, how could that not have affected the main truss spans? In a bridge with no redundant support structures and no center piers, wouldn’t that have been a red flag?
    In the meantime, plans for a replacement bridge have begun — and have expanded beyond replacement:

    Calling for a 10-lane bridge that would meet the growing demands of Twin Cities commuters, political leaders on Tuesday described a replacement for the collapsed Interstate 35W span that would be built swiftly, “right and safe.”
    The successor to the eight-lane bridge will be two spans with five lanes in each direction, including a transit option, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said as the state moved to have eligible design-build teams for the new bridge construction in place by the end of the week.

    It makes sense to build a wider bridge now rather than wait for later. The traffic over this bridge would have called for an expansion soon anyway — at which point perhaps the flaws of the previous bridge would have become obvious — and it will cost less to start now. An expansion will put pressure on Minnesota to expand the I-35W corridor in the southern approach, however, and there is not much room to do so. Will Minnesota have to start using eminent domain to knock down the residential neighborhoods on either side of the freeway? I-35W only has six lanes of traffic for most of the southern approach.
    Also, the transit option looks like another way to siphon money out of highway-maintenance funds. We should put the light-rail pet projects aside for a while and spend our money on fixing the rest of our bridges, or replacing them if necessary. So far, Northstar has been nothing but a boondoggle serving few Minnesotans and distracting from the maintenance of highway systems that get far more use.

    Not A Funding Issue, Part III

    Once again, the media has brought up the issue of transportation funding as a cause of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and once again the article itself contradicts the theme. The New York Times tries to paint the cause as a refusal to raise taxes — but acknowledges that funding on transportation has hit all-time highs. Decisions on spending priorities and a desire to force change on an unwilling public has more to do with infrastructure maintenance:

    Even as the cause of the bridge disaster here remains under investigation, the collapse is changing a lot of minds about spending priorities. It has focused national attention on the crumbling condition of America’s roadways and bridges — and on the financial and political neglect they have received in Washington and many state capitals.
    Despite historic highs in transportation spending, the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need, has typically driven where much of the money goes. That has often meant construction of new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones.
    Further, transportation and engineering experts said, lawmakers have financed a boom in rail construction that, while politically popular, has resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by a vast majority of American commuters.

    And now we get to the core of the issue on infrastructure maintenance. The drive for light rail has shifted monies away from roads and bridges that people use to mass-transit systems they don’t. Politicians want to build new systems in order to “cut a ribbon”, as Chuck Schumer put it, to aggrandize themselves. Bridge maintenance doesn’t make for many photo ops.
    But it’s more than that. Light rail in Minnesota consists of one line between the Mall of America and downtown. The state spent a half-billion dollars on this train that could have been spent on expanding and maintaining the actual roads that people choose to use. The Northstar, also known as the Ventura Trolley, came into being because our elected representatives thought that we should be forced to change our transportation patterns for our own good.
    The Times also points out that this project is ongoing, and still eating up our transportation dollars. Minnesota recently received $12 million in transportation funding from this session’s transportation and housing appropriations bill, an addition to the five-year funding bill passed in 2005. Of that money, $10 million is already earmarked for the existing point-to-point Northstar. The balance goes to bike and walking paths, a particular bone on which Rep. Jim Oberstar chews on an annual basis.
    So what’s the solution? More calls for gas-tax increases. We’ve heard it here in Minnesota, and now the Times reports that the National Conference of State Legislatures wants a 3-cent per gallon federal tax increase — in order to send more funds back to the states in which the gasoline was bought. That’s even less courageous than demanding state increases in taxes hours after a bridge collapse that has yet to be analyzed for the particular failure, in a state that already spends $2.2 billion on transportation.
    What part of “historic highs in transportation spending” don’t people understand? The problem here is not funding but prioritization. Instead of conducting social experiments like the Northstar, perhaps the money should go to fixing our infrastructure — if that was even the cause of the St. Anthony Bridge collapse, which no one has established. Raising revenues for the same bad prioritization processes just means more money will get wasted and the same people will continue to make those bad decisions.
    UPDATE: Slightly different topic, but the people of Stillwater aren’t thrilled with their bridge, either:

    Minnesota Department of Transportation officials on Monday rushed to assure St. Croix River Valley residents that the Stillwater Lift Bridge is safe.
    The Pioneer Press and other media reported over the weekend that the lift bridge had a sufficiency rating of 2.8 on a scale of 100 – the second-lowest rating in the state. But MnDOT officials said the bridge was rated 42.8 during an inspection in May.
    The higher number reflects $5 million of work that was done to repair the bridge in late 2005, said MnDOT’s Nick Thompson. …
    Drivers should feel safe crossing the lift bridge, Thompson said. He said MnDOT wants to replace the bridge over the St. Croix River because it can’t handle current traffic demands and will continue to need maintenance in order to keep it operating.

    Well, 42.8 certainly represents an improvement over 2.8, but Stillwater residents recall that the St. Anthony Bridge had a rating of 50. I don’t think MnDOT assurances on this score will relieve the concern of bridge travelers.

    List Of Bridge Suspects Expands To Pigeons — And Minnesotans

    The inspections of the St. Anthony Bridge were difficult and dangerous affairs, according to a Star Tribune report. Spiders thrived on the support girders, and pigeons occupied the steel box sections where fatigue would have caused catastrophic failure. Those dangers don’t compare, however, to the treatment inspectors got from passing drivers when lanes had to close to conduct the inspections:

    Three experts familiar with the bridge said Monday that the impediments faced by inspectors included piles of pigeon guano, poor lighting, road rage and spider webs that could be mistaken for metal cracks.
    A former MnDOT inspection supervisor told the Star Tribune that even the best inspectors had difficulty making a thorough evaluation of the I-35W bridge. Its sheer length, nearly 2,000 feet, was part of the problem, they said. ..
    State traffic engineers would close lanes on the bridge for the inspections, and most of the time the lane closures were from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The snooper arms could operate from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. That put inspectors under continual pressure to finish work before the evening rush hour, said one of three experts.
    When the lanes were closed, it was not uncommon for inspectors to be the target of insults — even thrown objects — from inconvenienced motorists.

    The length of the bridge and its position high over the water made it impossible to conduct inspections from below. The only possible way to complete them was to work as fast as possible for four hours straight, hanging over the edge while getting taunted and abused by the driving public. That’s four hours for a 2,000-foot structure, of which 500 feet were over the Mississippi River.
    One inspector called it a “balancing act of bridge safety and the driving public”. Minnesotans should ask themselves why those two should be in opposition to each other. Those inspections were intended to keep those very people from falling into the river. It might be something to remember when driving over other bridges.
    Pigeons may also have contributed to the collapse, and even bats as well. They nested in the junctions of the girders, and they left “piles” of guano on the very parts of the bridge that most concerned inspectors. The droppings both covered the areas where inspectors needed to check for fatigue and also corroded the metal over a long period of time. MnDOT tried installing screens to keep the pigeons out, but to no avail. The 2006 inspection report complained of “severe pigeon debris” in the box members.
    Tim Pawlenty has already demanded a “stem to stern” re-evaluation of the bridge inspection process, which clearly is needed. We Minnesotans need to examine our own attitudes towards those who repair and maintain our roads and bridges. When we chase bridge inspectors away from their work, we shouldn’t be surprised when structures fail later.
    UPDATE: Earlier this morning, a friend sent me a series of photographs taken just after the St Anthony Bridge collapse. I’ve assembled them into a slideshow for easier viewing and hosted it at YouTube. These give a little more intimate look at the immediate aftermath — and show some of the heroic rescue work that followed.

    The Tax Argument

    Earlier today, I reported on the earmarks from the 2005 federal transportation bill in answer to the argument that Minnesota didn’t have the money to properly maintain the St. Anthony Bridge from collapsing as it did last Wednesday. That bill, despite its almost $500 million in earmarks for everything but the I-35W bridge, still provides Minnesota with nearly $3 billion in unearmarked federal funds for transportation, the vast majority of which gets spent on highways.
    What about state funds? In the wake of the tragedy, many have called for an increase in the gas tax from its present rate of 20 cents per gallon. That has not changed in 19 years — but that doesn’t mean revenues have remained static. For almost every year after 1988, gas tax revenue increases have been “stellar” — and in the one year they weren’t, an interesting phenomenon kept revenue flat:

    But by no longer buying gasoline for his 12-year-old Chevy, Dawson is no longer a contributor through the state gasoline tax to the state highway trust fund. That’s the big pot of money that pays for a good share of road and bridge building in Minnesota.
    And here’s the irony.
    Unlike Matt Dawson, most Minnesotans are driving more, not less. So, one would expect gas tax revenues to be higher. But the vehicles are slightly more fuel efficient, and a small but increasing number of them burn fuels that aren’t taxed or are taxed at a lower rate.
    The result is that in 2005, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, Minnesota’s gasoline tax revenue declined. Lawmakers can no longer count on year after year of stellar increases in gas tax revenue.

    The 20-cent tax had fed fuel-tax revenue increases for many years without raising the tax rate itself. Why? More people moved to Minnesota, and more people drove more miles. Until gas prices started to rise, people had no problem buying gas for their cars. After prices became an issue, people bought more efficient vehicles and bought fewer gallons of gasoline. In other words, higher prices led to less fuel bought. What do gas-tax increase advocates think will happen when the state artificially increases prices again?
    In any case, the numbers remained well over $600 million per year in revenue, or almost as much as the federal highway funds, after a 46% increase in the latter over the last six-year period. But that’s not the only source for highway funds here in Minnesota. City and county governments spend their property-tax revenues on streets and highways.
    Even more significantly, vehicle registration fees go to highways as well. In FY2006, that accounted for $484 million in revenue. According to the Minnesota legislature, 31% of that goes to highways, 23% to transit alternatives — and 46% goes to the general fund. That adds roughly $150 million to the state’s highway funding, which in 2006 meant around $780 million, apart from the federal funds available.
    But wait — there’s more! A percentage of motor vehicle sales taxes also go to highway funds. In the last three years, that has mean an additional $500 million. Adding the 2006 portion to the other funding, we now have about $940 million in state revenues going to highways in that year. After this year, though, the percentage of MVST revenues for highway funding changes … by going up. Instead of 30%, it will go up to 38% in 2007, 46% in 2008, and beginning in 2012, 60%.
    Between state and federal tax revenues, MnDOT had around $1.6 billion dollars, some of it earmarked, for highways in FY 2006, and probably has more this year. That could have paid for at least three new bridges to replace the St Anthony Bridge, if necessary, just in 2006 alone.
    I’d say the notion that we don’t collect enough revenue to make our bridges safe is at least premature.
    Addendum: Oh, and let’s not forget that we have a $2 billion surplus over the next three years. Why not use that instead of a tax increase? We’re already overcollecting as it is.
    UPDATE: Here’s a chart showing the budget for MnDOT since 2000:
    This comes from the state’s budget report, drafted last November. This clearly shows trendlines that confirm increased budgeting for MnDOT, and an annual budget of around $2 billion in 2006 and projected at the same level for the next several years. Except for 2003 when Minnesota had a spike in its Trunk Highway funds, that represents a steady funding level for the last few years.
    That doesn’t prove we don’t need more — but before we start talking about new taxes, let’s find out whether additional funds would have prevented the bridge collapse and where the money MnDOT gets now goes.
    UPDATE II: In the next budget, transportation gets over $3 billion for two years in state funds (not including the $1.4 billion from the federal transportation bill), and comprises 8.7% of all state spending. It’s the third largest category, with Health and Human Services (38.4%) and K-12 education (27.4%) being the only functions with larger shares of the state budget. Public safety only gets 3.9%.

    A Miracle From Tragedy (Update: And Recognition For A Hero)

    According to ABC, one miracle from the tragic collapse of the St. Anthony Bridge has given a family a new member they thought might have been lost. Doctors delivered a child from an expectant mother in critical condition via Caesarian section, and the baby is doing well:

    A 34-year-old pregnant woman who was severely injured in the disaster, has given birth to a healthy baby boy, ABC News has been told.
    Rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center, the woman, whom hospital officials have not identified, underwent an emergency Caesarean section and doctors delivered a healthy baby boy, according to hospital records examined by ABC News. The woman was still in critical condition as of Friday, hospital sources say. …
    On her first day at the hospital, she was listed as a Jane Doe because emergency personnel were unable to locate any identification on her, say hospital sources. Doctors eventually were able to identify her and her family was notified. Because of patient privacy regulations, the hospital was unable to provide her name or her son’s name.

    The hospital has not released the name of the child or his mother, and she remains in critical condition. In essence, this is two miracles — that the baby survived the collapse, and that the mother survived the surgery. We’ll pray that the two are united in health as soon as possible.
    UPDATE: Mitch caught this story earlier. Jeremy Hernandez, who helped rescue the children from the school bus, was on it because he could not afford to attend school for auto mechanics. Now Dunwoody — a technical college in Minneapolis — has offered Jeremy a full scholarship:

    If school bus evacuator Jeremy Hernandez wants to resume learning auto mechanics at Dunwoody College of Technology, he can do so without charge.
    The Minneapolis school made that offer to Hernandez’s family Saturday.
    Hernandez drew national attention when he played a lead role in the evacuation of 61 kids and staff from a school bus caught up in last week’s Interstate 35W bridge collapse. …
    In news coverage afterward, Hernandez said that he was working as a youth worker at Waite House after he’d been forced to drop out of Dunwoody for lack of money. The school’s tuition and fees typically run $15,000 annually.

    That’s a mighty generous offer, and it’s appropriate for a mighty generous man. Perhaps people could contribute to Dunwoody’s scholarship program in Jeremy’s name to support Dunwoody’s support for one of the heroes of the bridge collapse. They already have a special category set up for it on their on-line contribution form.

    What Constituted A High Priority For Transportation Funding?

    Accusations have flown over funding priorities almost from the moment of the St. Anthony Bridge collapse last Wednesday. Despite the fact that federal transportation funding increased in 2005 by 46% to Minnesota, some still insist that the bridge collapsed because of a lack of funds for proper maintenance.
    Perhaps this roster of earmarks for Minnesota projects in that 2005 transportation bill will show what our Congressional delegation considered priorities. In this list, I-35W only gets mentioned twice in 147 separate line items, neither of which had anything to do with the bridge that collapsed. None of them mention the Lafayette Bridge either, which MnDOT considered more problematic than the St. Anthony Bridge before its collapse.
    So what did get prioritized?

  • Lyndale Avenue Bridge, Richfield ($13 million)
  • TH 169 between Virginia and Winton ($20 million)
  • Design and construction for new Stillwater crossing over the St. Croix ($9 million)
  • Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program in Minneapolis-St. Paul ($25 million)
  • Falls-to-Falls Corridor ($50 million)
  • Union Depot Multimodal Transit Facility ($50 million)
  • Those are just the earmarks that went to actual transportation projects. We also had the following funded as high priorities in the monies provided by the federal highway bill:

  • University of Minnesota ($16 million)
  • Recreational visitor center in Virginia, MN ($1.3 million)
  • Bike trail construction along TH 11 ($540,000)
  • Construct bicycle and pedestrian trails in Cuyuna Recreation Area ($700,000)
  • Heritage Center at the Grand Portage National Monument ($1.4 million)
  • Program for Replacement and upgrade of deficient township signs, statewide ($3 million)
  • All of these monies fell outside the control of MnDOT prioritization, thanks to the earmarks made by our Congressional delegation. In total, this amounted to $478 million, roughly one-seventh of the state’s federal highway funds for the five-year spending plan. Most of the earmarks have nothing to do with federal interstates but with rural roads maintained by the state and local governments.
    Clearly, Minnesota did not lack for funds to repair or replace the bridge. However, it appears that the priorities set by our representatives managed to hamstring state priorities for those funds to some extent. Before we start raising taxes that will undoubtedly create more opportunities for earmarking and meddlesome politicking, let’s (a) find out why the bridge collapsed, and (b) start demanding better control and prioritization of the funds we already get.