By JOAN LOWY , Associated Press
September 10, 2008

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and Senate Democrats clashed Wednesday over whether the nation's bridges are in a state of disrepair severe enough to be called a safety crisis.

"We don't believe there is a crisis with regard to bridge safety in America," Federal Highway Administrator Thomas Madison Jr. told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

More than one in four of the nation's 600,000 bridges are rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, but states have been putting more money into bridge repairs and the share of troubled bridges is shrinking.

"The condition of bridges is improving," Madison said, adding that even though a bridge is determined to be "structurally deficient" that doesn't mean it's unsafe or in imminent danger of collapse.

But Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said, "We have a crisis to deal with today — and that is the safety and security of all these bridges." Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, said "bridges across rural America" are in danger of collapse.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the committee, said it "defies commonsense" to believe that bridges judged structurally deficient are safe. She noted that the government's definition of a structurally deficient bridge is one that either has a weight limitation on vehicles that can cross it, needs immediate rehabilitation or is closed.

"We're at a point where we're short of funds so we try to wish away what's staring us in the face," Boxer said. "Let's at least admit the truth."

A little over a year ago, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and bringing national attention to the issue of bridge safety. A bill has passed the House and another is pending in the Senate that would pump an additional $1 billion into bridge repairs and beef up bridge inspections requirements, among other reforms.

Madison said more than 80 percent of bridges are already inspected every two years, and it would be "an onerous mandate on states to come up with all the resources to pay for all the additional inspections that may not equate to additional safety."

Many of the current inspections, however, are visual inspections that "are subjective and can vary based on the professional judgment of individual inspectors," said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., sponsor of the House bill.

A General Accounting Office report released at the hearing said the federal bridge repair program "lacks focus, there are no effective measures of program performance, and the impact of the increasing federal investment in bridges is unclear."