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Structurally deficient bridges and President Obama’s jobs bill

Last night after President Obama’s speech to Congress, attention turned to analysis of the speech and the President’s plan to take it on the road to the districts of key Representatives and Senators. Chris Matthews of MSNBC referenced Transportation for America and our data on structurally deficient bridges as an important part of making the very local case for more federal transportation spending.

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Will he take this all the way home? To people like Eric Cantor — he won’t get his vote probably — but bring it home? We now have a list from Transportation For America of thousands and thousands of bridges bridges across the country that are recognized to be structurally deficient. Will he go into the face of Eric Cantor, into the media market of Richmond, Virginia, and in the suburbs and list the bridges below safety code that Eric Cantor will have to vote to keep below safety code if he refuses for vote for this bill? How local will they make this fight?

It’s worth clarifying very quickly that structurally deficient bridges aren’t necessarily below any type of safety code. Yes, the I-35W Minneapolis bridge was rated structurally deficient when it collapsed, but state DOTs will tell you that they close bridges that are unsafe. Deficient bridges urgently require replacement or repair. Neglecting repairs to these bridges now will cost us millions more down the road and increase the chance that they have to be closed or limited to traffic one day, also costing money in lost time and productivity.

But the point Chris Matthews makes is a salient one.

The case for more federal transportation spending is best made at the local district level. A lot of House members have voted against spending more federal dollars on transportation, but aren’t shy about inserting their own earmarks for new roads or bridges or vying for stimulus dollars to address glaring transportation needs back home.

Talking about structurally deficient bridges takes on a different tone when one talks about the numbers of bridges in a particular member’s district that will remain deficient if spending isn’t increased or targeted to improve their condition.

Making a federal issue a local one could turn out to be a smart strategy to win support for a proposal that is “ambitious and pragmatic,” in the words of T4 Director James Corless.