Himes calls for end to bridge-repair money squabbles
Standing in front of one of the state's most structurally deficient bridges, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes said Monday that Congress must move beyond short-term fixes to find revenue for trillions of dollars in transportation repairs and upgrades nationwide.
"This nation's infrastructure is far too important to get caught up in the squabbling between Democrats and Republicans, or state, federal or municipal offices, or any other squabbling," Himes said. "This is not a partisan issue."
Himes joined Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling, other elected officials, and construction labor groups in front of the Yankee Doodle Bridge in Norwalk to tout new funding mechanisms, including leveraging private investment to pay for highway, bridge and rail repairs. The bridge, which carries Interstate 95 over the Norwalk River, is slated for $15 million in repairs to the steel superstructure starting in 2017. The bridge was originally built in 1958.
The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $10.8 billion package last week to prevent the National Highway Trust Fund from becoming insolvent next month, but the Senate has yet to approve it. The stop-gap measure would keep thousands of projects moving until next May.
Rilling said losing that funding would be a serious blow.
"If you look at the bridge behind me, it is the fourth-worst bridge in Connecticut," Rilling said. "A stop in the highway trust fund that would delay the construction of this bridge would certainly be a cause of concern for all people who travel on Interstate 95 in Norwalk."
But despite aging infrastructure nationwide, new, long-range funding options continue to remain untried, Himes said.
In addition to raising the federal gasoline tax and re-establishing a system of highway tolls in Connecticut, he supports creating a public bank that would issue bonds to institutional investors as a way of generating capital to be borrowed for infrastructure projects.
"The long-term answer is for us to acknowledge that we have trillions, with a capital T, of investment we need to make in the nation's railways, its highways, its electricity network and other networks," Himes said. "We need to be creative and innovative."
Don Schubert, president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, said the short-term funding is better than nothing, but the lack of a more comprehensive plan is prolonging a downturn in the construction industry that reaches back to the economic downturn of 2008.
More efficient and aggressive efforts to repair bridges and other transit infrastructure will not only keep workers employed, but result in better economic connection between New York and Boston, Schubert said.
"The construction industry has just been getting back off its knees since the recession, and there couldn't be a worse time for this," Schubert said.
While the short-term crisis may be averted, Himes said he only voted reluctantly in favor of the House package because it allows companies to reduce pension contributions to create short-term boosts in taxable corporate income to support projects.
The practice is flawed because it results in less government revenues in future years when corporations will be required to catch up on pension contribution, Himes said.
"It is probably one of the worst gimmicks you could use because it only provides revenue for today that you pay for after," Himes said. --¦We solved an urgent existential problem for the country with a gimmick. I voted for it because the thought of hundreds of projects coming to a stop, and hundreds of thousands being thrown out of work was unacceptable."
The category of "structurally deficient" applies to bridges that receive a poor rating on one of three components of its structure: the deck, superstructure or substructure.
A "poor" rating for a single component of the bridge doesn't indicate a safety concern or reflect problems with a bridge's structural integrity, Connecticut Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
"We know these bridges don't age overnight and they don't take drastic turns overnight," Nursick said. "We can attest to the safety of the bridges we are responsible for; however with growing infrastructure needs and stagnant federal funding, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out those don't add up."