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Schumer urges highway bill to fix NY bridges

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WASHINGTON — New York’s bridges, some damaged by Tropical Storm Irene but many already crumbling, desperately need a renewed federal commitment to highway spending, Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Wednesday.

Mr. Schumer, D-N.Y., made the case for extending highway programs for up to two years while lawmakers figure out a more long-term strategy for maintaining and building the surface transportation network.

In a conference call with New York reporters, Mr. Schumer said construction on the state’s bridges could grind to a halt on Sept. 30, the day the federal highway program is set to expire. Congressional leaders have struggled to reach a deal to authorize new projects and re-enact the federal gasoline tax that supports such work.

“What Irene did was just underscore how important this is,” said Mr. Schumer, who spent part of the Senate’s summer recess touring flood-damaged areas in the eastern and southern parts of the state.

Senate leaders agreed Wednesday to put the gasoline tax renewal and the highway program into the same legislation, a step toward resolving a key funding question, Mr. Schumer said. There has been some question whether conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, would go along with renewing the tax, which is 18.4 cents per gallon.

In addition, House Republicans have pushed to cut funding from the most recent levels, while in the Senate, Democrats and some Republicans have urged at least current-level funding.

“No one’s asking to increase the gas tax,” Mr. Schumer said.

Still, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., has warned that even a level-funding bill will exhaust the National Highway Trust Fund — supported by the gas tax — by 2013 unless additional revenue is found.

House Republicans offered a six-year authorization bill, while the Senate has floated a shorter bill. The last long-term highway bill expired in 2009 and has been extended repeatedly.

Mr. Schumer’s office cited 2,108 bridges in New York that the Federal Highway Administration considers structurally deficient, including 287 in Northern New York. Those include 58 bridges in St. Lawrence County and 37 in Jefferson County, the senator’s office reported. Although the designation does not imply a bridge is ready to collapse, it does reflect what the FHA considers shortcomings such as inadequate load capacity, poor load-bearing condition or a tendency to flood repeatedly.

Some with that designation are particularly old, such as Route 12E over the Perch River in the town of Brownville, built in 1893, according to the state Department of Transportation. Others are relatively modern, such as a bridge on Route 180 just north of Route 12F, last built or replaced in 1964.

DOT reported that about 12 percent of New York’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2010.

Separately, Mr. Schumer urged quick action on legislation to send $6 billion in emergency assistance to storm-damaged areas to cover repairs to damaged roads, bridges and other infrastructure. He said he hopes that measure can pass this month.

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