Politicians are drawn to tragedy like flies to pie. Take the Minneapolis bridge collapse. President Bush took a 10-minute helicopter fly-over of the bridge?just long enough to appear compassionate and promise to rebuild the bridge.
But you have to wonder what makes this a federal responsibility. The typical excuse is that the state can't afford such pricey projects, so it behooves the federal government to step in to help. Of course the federal government is also deeply in debt, so it's difficult to pin down exactly what "afford" actually means. Either way, Washington appears set to provide about $250 million to Minneapolis for a new bridge.
Whatever Minnesota's spending constraints, the state can apparently afford to spend hundreds of millions for corporate welfare to Carl Pohlad, the owner of the Minnesota Twins, for a new baseball stadium. Hennepin County, where the bridge is located, recently passed a new .15 percent sales tax solely to pay for Pohlad's new stadium.
Pohlad basically blackmailed Minnesota. Unless they bilked taxpayers for his personal benefit, Pohlad threatened to take his baseball team elsewhere. When voters in North Carolina rejected an attempt to fund a baseball park for Pohlad there, he shuffled back to Minneapolis, where he was rewarded with the corporate handout.
In addition to the baseball franchise, Pohlad owns Marquette Financial Companies and United Properties. Next to PepsiCo Inc., his family is the largest shareholder in PepsiAmericas. Pohlad is a billionaire, several times over. Yet the state of Minnesota, which apparently is too poor to properly maintain its bridges, was willing to hand him a few hundred million more. And Pohlad's subsidy was just one part of a massive $1 billion package the legislature put together, which also included funding for a new stadium for the University of Minnesota football team.
The bridge didn't collapse because Minnesota couldn't afford to maintain it. The bridge collapsed because the state had other priorities, unrelated to the proper functions of government.
The problem isn't unique to Minnesota. If you compare the percentage of bridge deficiencies with taxes raised, you'll find that some of the highest-taxed states also have some of the worst problems with bridge maintenance. Rhode Island is in the top ten when it comes to taxes collected, and has a higher percentage of deficient bridges than any other state. Pennsylvania has taxes higher than 31 other states, and a bridge deficiency rate that is the second worst in the country. New York is number ten in taxes collected, and is one of the worst when it comes to maintenance. In fact, half of the top ten-taxed states are in the bottom ten when to comes to bridge maintenance.
President Bush is now promising around $250 million for a new bridge in Minneapolis. That is considerably less than what the state gave Pohlad, and $750 million less than the state poured into its various sports stadiums. And of course, simply repairing the bridge would have cost a lot less than now having to replace it.
Even if we assume that maintaining local bridges is a federal project, the involvement of politicians means perverted priorities, and maintenance of existing infrastructure, which has no clear constituency, isn't going to rank very high.
Consider the earmark debate. As the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, "The $250 million in emergency appropriations now flying through Congress for Minnesota is slightly more than half the amount appropriated to Alaska for the 'Bridge to Nowhere' and 'Don Young's Way,' two of the more infamous earmarks from the 2005 bill."
And here's the kicker:
"A main problem with these earmarks is that they often supersede the more urgent repair and replacement needs identified by state and local officials." Earmarked funds often go unspent because these "vanity projects" are unwanted.
"A full five years after the 1987 transportation bill, for example, no less than 64% of its earmarked money was still unspent because states had more urgent priorities for their share of the spending. By 1997, 55% of the $6.2 billion in earmarks from the 1991 highway bill had gone unspent. We can't report the same numbers for the 1998 and 2005 highway bills because the federal Transportation Department stopped disclosing the figures, lest it embarrass Members of Congress.?
Earmarks divert spending from the necessary projects to the frivolous. The New York Times reports that in spite of historically high spending on transportation, highway funds are allocated according to "the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need," which means "construction on new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones."
The Times adds that politicians are keen to fund politically-correct projects for transport over actual maintenance projects. This has "resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by the vast majority of American commuters."