In the wake of the Minnesota bridge collapse, House Transportation Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., was struck with a blinding insight on how to solve the problem of neglected infrastructure. Before you continue reading, let me suggest that you take a pair of vise grips and use them to get a tight hold on your wallet. Because what occurred to Oberstar is that the federal government needs more money to spend on aging bridges.
"If you’re not prepared to invest another five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, then God help you," he declared. Actually, he doesn’t want just a single nickel, but a nickel on every gallon of gas sold to motorists, which would amount to a 27 percent increase in the federal fuel tax. This boost, he insists, would last only three years, bringing in $25 billion in new revenue.
But just two years ago, Congress and the president agreed on a federal highway bill with a six-year price tag of $286 billion. Nationally, all bodies of government spend in the neighborhood of $150 billion a year on roads. Somewhere in that mountain of cash, you might think, there must be funds that could be spared to keep bridges from rotting and falling down.
You would be right. When the 2005 package passed, it included 6,736 special projects inserted by members for the benefit of their home districts, which had a total price tag of $24 billion — helping to make it what the organization Taxpayers for Common Sense called "by far the most expensive, wasteful highway bill in the nation’s history."
Among the worst federal road projects identified by the group in a 2004 report was $121 million to add new ramps to, yes, Interstate Highway 35W in Minneapolis. It’s just a hunch, but maybe those funds would have been more wisely spent on maintenance than expansion.
President Bush has not always been a voice for fiscal discipline, but in this case he wisely rejected the idea of entrusting additional resources to the same people who helped create the problem. "My suggestion would be that they revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place," he said.
Oberstar’s proposal, however, betrays the strange mentality that prevails among many elected officials. When people mess up royally in the private sector, they are punished by the loss of money and even the disappearance of the entities that employ them. When people mess up royally in the public sector, they often get more money and more responsibilities.
That’s not the only perverse pattern on display here. The story of federal highway spending is one of funding glamorous construction projects and neglecting more tedious obligations. Former Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., who served as House Transportation Committee chairman from 1995 to 2001, managed to get an interstate highway built back in his home state. It is now known as the "Bud Shuster Highway." What congressman has ever had a resurfacing project or bridge repair named after him?
Anyone can see that it makes no sense to add a rec room to your house when the roof is leaking and the lights are shorting out. Somehow, though, spending money to build new transportation links while letting existing ones deteriorate masquerades as sound policy on Capitol Hill.
Much of the problem of neglected maintenance arises from the fact that almost all roads and bridges are owned and operated by the government — which doesn’t have the same incentive as private companies to preserve valuable assets.
If a shopping mall lets its facilities decay, customers will go elsewhere. If authorities let a major bridge or road fall into disrepair, by contrast, motorists may have no alternative, except other bridges and roads that are also under-maintained by the same authorities. A corporation whose negligence is lethal will face a flood of lawsuits, but governments are generally exempt from such accountability.
There are other problems with transportation funding. Robert Poole, the peerless director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation, says the federal highway formula systematically diverts money from "fast-growing, highly populated states to slow-growing, less populated states." This serves political needs at the expense of genuine priorities. "We couldn’t have designed a more perverse approach to solving our highway investment problem if we tried," says Poole.
Actually, we could. We could keep the perversities and lavish more money on them.