WASHINGTON – Money alone won’t spare the U.S. another tragedy like Wednesday’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Transporation experts say government must also reform its piecemeal approach to investment in the nation’s public works.

“We have the largest civil infrastructure in the world, but also it is the oldest,” said Riyad Aboutaha, a professor of civil engineering at Syracuse University. “We do not repair it until it reaches a critical stage.”

But if $1.6 trillion fell from the sky to bring roads, bridges, airports and water systems into good condition – the amount the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed over five years – the nation might soon face the same issues it does today, experts said.

The problem is the lack of any comprehensive, rational system. Three separate federal laws authorize money for airports, highways and water, and different jurisdictions squabble over whose piece of pie is bigger.

Every year, localities push forward their most urgent projects, and the state or federal government decides what hits the jackpot. With 90 percent federal highway financing, there’s a strong incentive for local jurisdictions to wait for the next year’s gravy train instead of tackling projects on their own, said Everett Ehrlich, who has examined the issue for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We don’t have a system that lets us know which the best things to build are,” Ehrlich said. “The policies we have were put in place 50 years ago or more, to get stuff built but not to maintain it.”

The stakes are high.

Not only do lives depend on safe roads and bridges, but the $13 trillion U.S. economy relies on transporting goods to market and bringing workers to their places of employment. Congestion in the 20 largest U.S. cities costs more than $50 billion a year and wastes 1.8 billion gallons of fuel, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

“There are critical aspects of our transportation system that are at capacity, and that caps our economic growth,” said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We need a productive response that looks at sustained needs, and acts.”

The current system is woefully underfunded. Highways are primarily paid for with a federal gas tax, which hasn’t increased in 14 years. Meanwhile, construction costs can increase as much as 75 percent each year given demand for steel and other materials, Kavinoky said.

And if the deterioration of roads and bridges is obvious, noted civil engineering professor Ralph Dusseau, imagine the condition of underground water and sewer systems with average ages ranging from 50 to 100 years.

“It’s a slow, creeping cancer that’s been taking over the country,” said Dusseau, of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. “Until something like this happens you don’t see the disease.”

In the days following the Minnesota disaster, transportation experts asked each other why the failures of Hurricane Katrina weren’t enough to prompt comprehensive infrastructure repair, Kavinoky said.

“That’s the fundamental challenge of infrastructure as an issue. It doesn’t get coverage until a levee breaks or a bridge falls down, and it goes away pretty easily,” she said.

Two bills pending in Congress aim to address infrastructure more rationally.

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation sponsored by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, to set up a national commission that would assess infrastructure needs.

“The catastrophic bridge collapse in Minneapolis is a tragic reminder of the growing challenge we are facing across the country,” Clinton said in a statement. “It is vital that we make needed investments to rebuild and strengthen our infrastructure.”

And just hours before the Minneapolis bridge collapsed, Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., introduced legislation to create an independent national bank to evaluate and help finance major infrastructure projects.

While Congress and federal transportation officials debate the issue, some local jurisdictions are moving to establish long-term systems of paying for construction and infrastructure maintenance.

In New York City, for instance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed charging fees to drive into the central business district of Manhattan.

“There’s more interest in those kinds of approaches now than at any point,” said Martin Wachs, director of transportation at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. “The pricing of the use of infrastructure should be closer to its actual cost so we don’t encourage profligate, wasteful use.”

We would use congested highways more selectively if it cost money, just as we conserve water and electricity because of price, Wachs said. What’s more, technology now makes it easier to collect tolls and raise prices during rush hour.

Most important, states and local governments can move more quickly, while the federal government may have difficulty mustering the political will to change how infrastructure is financed.

“There have been other serious incidents, most of which have not galvanized the country to take decisive action,” Wachs said. “I wouldn’t predict we’d have wholesale reform based on a major incident of this type.”

Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at [email protected]

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