Bridge Politics

Unless we change the way we fund our highways, infrastructure will continue to crumble.

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The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is Representative James Oberstar, a Democrat from Minnesota. Oberstar recently bragged about bagging $12 million in funds for the state, but the New York Times notes that $10 million of that "is slated for a new 40-mile commuter rail line to Minneapolis, called the Northstar," and "the remaining $2 million is divided among a new bike and walking path and a few other projects, including highway work and interchange reconstruction."

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says that the political process means "that routine but important things like maintenance always get shortchanged because it's nice for somebody to cut a ribbon for a new structure."

Hans Bader at the Competitive Enterprise Institute notes that in Europe, some commentators have been posting messages at Dutch and German newspaper web sites blaming the collapse on low taxes. And C. Michael Walton of the University of Texas seems to endorse this. Walton says that the lack of maintenance was the result of "our backlash to increases in taxes." And even though Sen. Schumer correctly identified the misallocation of transportation spending, his own solution was also to call for new taxes, not for the reallocation of wasted funds.

However, the problem in Minnesota was not the result of low taxes. It's the seventh highest-taxed state in the country.

I'm personally familiar with two other bridge collapses: the 1983 collapse of the Mianus Bridge, which killed three, and the 1989 collapse of the Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland, which killed forty.

The Mianus Bridge is in Connecticut, the state with the second highest tax level in the country. And the Cypress Street Viaduct is in California, which ranks at number 12. Both collapses were maintenance related. Though an earthquake triggered the Oakland collapse, the state had neglected to fund retrofitting for the bridge for years, in favor of other projects.

After the Mianus incident I, along with Douglas Conway, wrote a policy paper caled "The Road Not Taken," which outlined how politics misallocates highway spending, leading to incidents like the Mianus collapse. Apparently nothing has changed. But then, it wouldn't as long as roads remain under political control. Higher taxes rarely improve roads, since politicians will always be tempted to use money for projects that are more immediately politically advantageous.

A city, for instance, may need to spend $100 million on policing and fire protection, which are popular. But the politicians may also want to spend $20 million on an unpopular vanity project. They may allocate $20 million to the vanity projects and $80 million to fire and police. Then they go to the public asking for an additional $20 million in new taxes in order to "adequately fund" fire and police services.

By diverting funds from popular programs to unpopular programs they are able to push through tax increases that would otherwise be difficult to pass. Rarely do they have the integrity to actually raise taxes for the express purpose of funding vanity projects.

What's the alternative? One possible solution would be to turn each state road system into a non-profit corporation funded entirely from tolls, not taxes. The stockholders in the corporation would be the road users. They elect a board to run the roads and determine road spending and tolls. Funds cannot be diverted to other vanity projects since all funding belongs only to the road corporation. And the only source for funding would be the tolls, not taxes subject to political manipulation.

If tolls are too high, and surpluses are routinely generated, then the tolls would be reduced. Any profit is returned to the road users themselves in direct proportion to what they paid. People who don't use the roads pay nothing directly, and pay indirectly relative to the benefits they receive. Trucking services, whose use of the roads are subsidized by taxpayers, would pay more. We'd then pay a bit more for the products they move.

With electronic road pricing systems like E-ZPass, there's really no need for toll booths, save perhaps for out-of-state travelers—who normally get a free ride, but who, under this system, would actually pay for the harm they inflict on the state's roads. We could then abolish the taxes normally (purportedly) used for roads.

Each consumer would know the exact cost of his road services. The funds couldn't be diverted to vanity projects unrelated to transportation, or to other states. The precise mechanism for non-state provision of roads is open to debate. But the political provision surely has already proven itself deficient.

James Peron is a freelance writer currently living in Europe. He is the editor of The Liberal Tide: From Tyranny to Liberty, and the author of Zimbabwe: Death of a Dream, and other books.

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