The Hill: Decaying DC bridge puts spotlight on Trump plan

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Washington, January 20, 2017 | comments


Melanie Zanona
People traveling to Donald Trump's inauguration on the National Mall won't be using an iconic bridge that links the Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln monument.

The Arlington Memorial Bridge, built in 1932, is shut down to vehicular traffic from Thursday to Saturday because it has been placed under weight limits after being deemed structurally deficient.

To some, the decaying bridge is a symbol of the need for the United States to spend money on its crumbling roads and bridges.

Yet the infrastructure plan put forward by Trump, say critics, would likely do nothing to revitalize the bridge. That’s because the plan would rely heavily on tax credits to incentivize private firms to build projects, rather than repair existing structures owned by the government.

“The plan they put out on the campaign, it relies exclusively on tax credits. These are equity holders, so they own the assets,” said Doug Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum. “This would be private ownership, which is at odds with [the bridge’s] current public purpose.”

One of Trump's most prominent — and consistent — vows on the campaign trail was to move quickly on a sweeping package to repair the nation's roads, bridges and other public works.

Although Trump has not yet sketched out his promised infrastructure bill in detail, he has floated a $1 trillion package that would offer $137 billion in federal tax credits to private firms that back transportation projects.

But there have been growing concerns among Democrats and rural Republicans that Trump’s plan to drum up money from the private sector would leave some critical infrastructure needs — like the Memorial Bridge — in the lurch.

Infrastructure experts contend that private investors will only be attracted to projects that can recoup their costs through a revenue stream like toll ways or user fees.

“You’d have to have some cash roll, generated by a toll or user fee, and that’s obviously not what the Memorial Bridge looks like,” Holtz-Eakin said.

Adorned by statues and designed as a memorial to symbolize reunification of the North and South after the Civil War, the bridge sees an average of 68,000 vehicles pass over it each day. It’s also designated as an emergency evacuation route for the nation’s capital.

Park service officials have emphasized that the bridge is continually checked and is safe to drive on.

But the bridge, which is considered one of the most vulnerable structures in the federal system, is marred by decaying steel, crumbling concrete and peeling paint.

What’s worse, officials estimate that it will be forced to close permanently in the next five years if the project doesn’t get the full $250 million in funding it needs for repairs. The Department of Transportation (DOT) recently awarded the bridge a $90 million federal “FASTLANE” grant, a significant step, though not enough.

Direct funding for those sorts of transportation grants, however, have not yet received an endorsement from Trump.

Infrastructure experts agree that the private firms favored in Trump’s infrastructure proposal likely wouldn’t be interested in fixing up the bridge unless they erected toll ways — a surely unpopular move for commuters using the key connection between D.C. and Arlington.

“I don’t think anyone is floating the idea of tolling Memorial Bridge to leverage private investment,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

The bridge is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is administered by the National Park Service, which is prohibited from collecting user fees in the District of Columbia.

“I have done big infrastructure projects. I know that major projects need government investment. Finance incentives and tax cuts to corporations alone are not going to cut it,” Connolly said. “Memorial Bridge is a great example of the unique role of the federal government in rehabilitating and rebuilding our aging infrastructure.”

The local issue already got a bit of the national spotlight at a Senate confirmation hearing earlier this week. Trump's nominee to lead the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), said he would try to ensure that Trump’s infrastructure bill “includes our national treasures" like the Arlington Memorial Bridge.

"It turns out that needs about $150 million,” Zinke said. “So we better get on it.”

Democratic Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, who helped secure FASTLANE funding for the rehabilitation project, are hoping the closed bridge will serve as a reminder that Trump needs to address all transportation needs in his infrastructure package.

“The day before Inauguration Day ... the President-elect would typically travel across the bridge for a wreath laying ceremony in accordance with tradition,” they pointed out in a recent letter to Zinke.

Trump, however, was forced to take an alternative route.

http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/315196-decaying-dc-bridge-puts-spotlight-on-trump-plan
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