Minnesota Bridge Collapse
Collapsed sections of the Interstate 35W bridge lie in and next to the Mississippi River on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007, in Minneapolis.

When the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis during rush hour traffic in August 2007, killing 13 people, it sparked an alarm to repair the nation's crumbling transportation infrastructure.

Engineering groups, safety experts and others soon warned of some 73,000 crumbling bridges across the country, including more than 1,200 in Wisconsin.

But despite these concerns, it appears few things have changed when it comes to transportation funding. New roads still get the bulk of the money while repairs are put off.

In fact, a recent report from the Public Interest Research Group in Washington D.C. shows that only 74 of the 704 highway projects earmarked in the 2008 Congressional transportation appropriations bill are for repairing or maintaining a bridge, tunnel or overpass. Of the $570 million in funding, more than 90 percent went for new highways and other new construction.

In Wisconsin, nine of the 10 earmarked projects in the federal bill are for highways, including expansion of Wisconsin 57 from Dyckesville to Sturgeon Bay; improvements on U.S. 10 from Marshfield to Stevens Point; and construction on U.S. 41 from Oconto to Peshtigo. The lone infrastructure project is repairs to the College Avenue bridge in Appleton.

So why are the crumbling bridges getting ignored?

PIRG blames it on the unending flow of campaign contributions from highway construction companies and the trade associations that represent them. Road builders contributed nearly $860,000 to Wisconsin candidates and elected officials alone in 2008, according to the PIRG report.

"In our current political system, elected officials must raise huge sums of campaign contributions from major donors to win re-election," says Johanna Lathrop, who heads transportation issues at the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.

And politicians, after all, would much prefer to cut the ribbon on a new 4-lane highway than answer questions about infrastructure maintenance.

The new Wisconsin Department of Transportation's long-range plan, "Connections 2030," however, calls for an emphasis on preserving roads and bridges while promoting transit and other services. That report is available here.

While a lot will surely change between now and 2030 - will oil be affordable or even available? - the DOT does seem to acknowledge the challenges.

Toll roads anyone?

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