State lawmakers could play important role in infrastructure debate

COLUMBIA -- The Minnesota bridge collapse has ripened the typically bland issue of infrastructure repair even as it highlights a deep divide in South Carolina and across the country over how the problem should be addressed.

With U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., becoming an important voice on how federal dollars are spent and the state's Democratic duo of John Spratt and Jim Clyburn wielding great power in the U.S. House, lawmakers from the Palmetto State probably will play a key role in the infrastructure debate.

But the state's delegation is divided on the issue.

DeMint, for example, wants more control over infrastructure repair to be put in the hands of state governments. He has spoken out against "earmarks," which allow legislators to request money for specific projects.

"Millions of South Carolina's gas tax dollars go to other states, and the funds that should be coming back oftentimes get tied up in political earmarks and federal red tape," DeMint said.

Clyburn counters that DeMint is currying favor with anti-government groups at the expense of meeting South Carolina's needs.

"I think Jim DeMint is trying to make Brownie points out here with these groups rather than representing the people of South Carolina," said Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House.

Clyburn said members of Congress need to be more attentive to their districts and request more not fewer earmarks to address infrastructure needs.

The S.C. Department of Transportation said the state has more than 1,000 bridges that are structurally deficient the same federal designation as the failed bridge in Minnesota. It would take $2.9 billion over 20 years to clear the state's backlog of bridge repairs, DOT said.

Nationally, a 2005 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a grade of "D" and said it would cost $1.6 trillion over five years to clear the infrastructure repairs backlog.

But DeMint's S.C. colleague in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, said pouring more money into infrastructure is not the only -- or best -- solution.

"What I would ask the Congress to do is look at the current process for infrastructure funding in this country," said Graham, adding that infrastructure money tends to flow to the districts and states of powerful lawmakers and not necessarily to the areas of greatest need. "Fix the process before you add more money."

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton became the latest presidential aspirant Wednesday to beat the drum of infrastructure repair in the aftermath of the Minnesota bridge failure.

Before participating in a conference call with reporters from South Carolina -- home to an important presidential primary next year, the New York Democrat's campaign released the outlines of a plan to spend more than $13 billion to repair roads, bridges and rail systems.

Clinton's plan made no mention of how the infrastructure upgrades would be paid for, although she did allude to savings from withdrawing troops from Iraq and scaling back President Bush's tax cuts.

"Fundamentally, I think we have an infrastructure crisis," the senator said. "We're seeing the results of our failures."

Hours before the Minnesota bridge collapse, two U.S. senators, Democratic presidential candidate Chris Dodd of Connecticut and possible Republican presidential candidate Chuck Hagel of Nebraska made a joint call for the nation to upgrade its crumbling infrastructure.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said voters in South Carolina and elsewhere can expect to hear candidates preach the gospel of infrastructure repair with increasing frequency.

Politicians, he said, know a winning issue when they see one.

"Are there really 10 people out there who want the bridges to collapse?" Sabato asked.