In the news

Seattle PI
Scott Gutierrez

Remember the Interstate 35 Bridge in Minneapolis, which collapsed during rush hour and killed 13 people in 2007? Suddenly, politicians and the media were focused on the nation's neglected infrastructure, particularly the thousands of bridges that have been rated as structurally deficient

So how much has been done to repair or replace ailing bridges? Not much, according to a new report from the Washington Public Interest Group that explores the nexus between transportation spending and special interest money.

Of 704 projects earmarked in the 2008 federal transportation appropriations bill -- the first since the I-35 bridge collapse -- only 74 were to repair bridges, according to the report. In Washington state, 400 bridges, or 5 percent of bridges statewide, are rated as structurally deficient. Yet the state's congressional delegation requested four earmarks for bridge repairs in the 2008 appropriations bill, including a pedestrian bridge along a hiking trail.

On Thursday, WashPIRG released the report, "Greasing the Wheels: The Crossroads of Campaign Money and Transportation Policy. It says "highway interests" that tend to advocate for bigger, new-capacity road projects instead of maintenance work spent $133 million on campaigns for candidates at federal and state levels. They include developers, automobile companies, trade associations and the transportation sector.

Earmarks in 2008 under the federal highway program totaled about $582 million. The report doesn't go as far as showing quid pro quo between earmarks requested by specific legislators and campaign contributions. But it advocates for a voluntary system of publicly financed elections that focuses on incentivizing small-dollar donors and reducing the influence of large corporate donors.

Blair Anundson, a WashPIRG organizer, said the report isn't meant to impugn any public officials, but rather point out that they are hamstrung by a flawed system. Changes need to be made so that transportation spending meets the public's greater needs and doesn't serve the "narrow interests of the biggest contributors," he said.

The report was discussed Thursday morning at Duwamish River Park with the crumbling South Park Bridge as a backdrop. King County is competing with several mega-projects for federal grant money to replace the crumbling bridge.

About $80.3 million in campaign contributions from highway interests went directly to federal candidates, with 47 percent to Democrats and 53 percent to Republicans. About $53.5 million was spent on campaigns at the state level, with 39 percent to Democrats and 61 percent to Republicans, according to the report. Highway interests spend more money at the state level than any other industry groups, according to the report.

WashPIRG's report didn't look at federal stimulus spending, although a report earlier this year from Smart Growth America found that many states failed to make critical repairs to existing infrastructure and instead invested mostly in new projects.

Washington was ahead of 16 states in devoting $301 million, or 61 percent of its $493 million in stimulus money to "highway system preservation," while $144 million was directed to new construction, according to the earlier report.

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