Transportation Policy

Bridge Politics

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

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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."

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.