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Filler: Washington state bridge is a warning we won't heed

A portion of the Interstate-5 bridge is submerged

A portion of the Interstate-5 bridge is submerged after it collapsed into the Skagit river dumping vehicles and people into the water in Mount Vernon, Wash. according to the Washington State Patrol. (May 23, 2013) Credit: AP

Trying to get Americans to pay attention to infrastructure evokes the lovable dogs in animated movies.

"My God, did that bridge just collapse with all those cars on it . . . and now the newscaster is saying 11 percent of our nation's bridges are structurally deficient. Enough is enough! It's time we . . . SQUIRREL!"

And off our focus goes, bounding after the latest story about celebrity "baby bumps" or politicians caught tweeting "watch me rock my knee socks" photos to underage communist calf fetishists.

Thursday, a bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed after a truck with a too-tall load clipped a truss. Amazingly, no one in the two vehicles that plunged into the river was seriously injured.

So 11 percent of the bridges in the United States are "structurally deficient," according to the Federal Highway Administration. In Nassau County 17 bridges fall into that category, and seven do in Suffolk. But what's really chilling is this: The bridge that collapsed last week wasn't bad enough to be rated structurally deficient. It was, though, "functionally obsolete," meaning the design is outdated, and "fracture critical," indicating a failure in any one part of the span could collapse the entire bridge. Which is exactly what happened.

Plenty of bridges in the nation fall into these categories, best described as, "We're not saying anyone's going to die, we're just saying we sure as heck wouldn't build it that way again." There are 196 functionally obsolete bridges in Nassau County, another 198 in Suffolk, and about 85,000 nationally, or 14 percent of our spans.

When bridges collapse, it rarely turns out as well as it did last week. Six years ago a collapse in Minneapolis killed 13 people and made bridge safety a hot topic, but time passed, and attention . . . SQUIRREL!

The issue is money. Money to fix or replace bridges can come from local or state funds, but traditionally springs largely from the federal Highway Trust Fund. Most of the money in the Highway Trust Fund comes from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, which hasn't been raised since Bill Clinton hiked it 20 years ago. That leaves the United States with bridges collapsing and roads with potholes so deep they need bridges, which we also can't afford.

Raising the gas tax is not a liberal plot. President Ronald Reagan raised it 120 percent, and George Bush the First bumped it up 55 percent. Yet when I talked to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) about whether a gas-tax hike can get past House Republicans this term, he made it sound highly unlikely. The Highway Trust Fund is scheduled to go broke in 2014.

Any tax set as a specific amount and not indexed to inflation eventually becomes insufficient. Gas cost $1.20 per gallon when the tax was made 18.4 cents. The price has since more than tripled. The gas tax doesn't need to move with volatile fuel prices, but it should go up with broad inflation -- which would make it about 30 cents per gallon today.

Bishop said that likely won't happen because so many House Republicans have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to vote for any tax increase.

The United States can't be economically vibrant, or even safe, if we have faulty roads and bridges. Hiking the gas levy to reflect inflation is not a tax increase.

We voters need to vote out politicians who can't make sensible governing decisions. We need to remember this bridge collapse, along with our own distressed bridges and the plight of all our infrastructure when we head to the ballot box next November and . . . SQUIRREL!

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.