Everyone is calling the Minnesota bridge collapse a wake-up call. It wasn't. It was a come-to-your-room-and-body-slam-you call.
All of a sudden politicians were decrying the sorry state of the infrastructure, especially bridges. Something like 160,000 of our 600,000-plus bridges are rated potentially dangerous.
Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wants Congress to: dedicate funding to fix bad bridges; beef up inspection programs; distribute repair funds based on safety and need, and set up a bridge repair/replacement trust fund.
And-no surprise here – a bunch of politicians are campaigning for higher fuel taxes.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that it would take $9.4 billion per year for 20 years to completely upgrade our bridge system. Oberstar says the current highway act sets aside around $2 billion a year for bridges. He blames the Bush administration for it not being more.
At this writing, Oberstar has floated funding ideas of a 5-cent fuel tax hike for three years, and a dollar-a-barrel tax on crude oil. President Bush thinks there's a better way: Congress should rethink its funding priorities.
How about we do some math? Let's say the engineers' number of $9.4 billion a year to fix bridges is accurate. How can we get there without raising highway user fees?
We could start with what went wrong in the 2005 highway bill, where Congress approved $24 billion for pet pork-barrel projects in members' districts.
They included things like new bridges for tiny Alaskan towns, dust control on Arkansas back roads and an Erie Canal warehouse renovation. One project, engineered by Oberstar himself, funded a pilot program for bicycle and pedestrian trails. Those things didn't come from the administration – they came from Congress.
In the end, Congressmen passed a record 6,300 pork projects. And that $24 billion was nearly three times the previous record of $9 billion of pork, set in 1998.
Back to that math: We need $9.4 billion a year for bridge repair. We currently put aside $2 billion a year. Take the $24 billion of pork away from the politicians and spread it over four years ($6 billion a year), add it to the current $2 billion, and we're up to $8 billion a year – only $1.4 billion short of our goal – without a tax increase.
OK, so it's a pipe dream to think we can eliminate all the pork. But our current highway funding system is an open floodgate for lawmakers to put politics and greed ahead of the nation's greater good.
Will it take more disasters for Congress to put some sense into funding decisions?
E-mail Doug Condra at [email protected], or write PO Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.