Friday, August 03, 2007

America's bridge to nowhere

The Minneapolis bridge collapse is a metaphor for our twisted national priorities.

While divers continue their search for the bodies of people who until the moment of death had assumed they were merely commuters, let’s consider these facts:

In 2005, the Minneapolis legislature enacted a hike in the gas tax, with the money earmarked for much-needed road and bridge repairs. But Tim Pawlenty - the Republican governor who has long been billed as a rising star in the conservative firmament, and who has sought to reign on a pledge of No New Taxes – decided that a gas tax hike would violate his principles. So he vetoed the bill. The lawmakers squawked, pointing out that the gas tax at the pump had last been raised in 1988, failed to override the veto.

Then, earlier this year, the lawmakers tried again. Mindful of the fact that Minnesota’s annual shortfall for road and bridge repairs had soared to $1.8 billion, they enacted another hike in the gas tax. But Pawlenty, deciding that the payment of an additional five cents per gallon constituted an undue tax burden, vetoed this bill as well. And again the lawmakers lacked the votes to override.

I’m not suggesting that this no-new-taxes governor is personally responsible for the I-35 bridge collapse; the span may well have fallen anyway, even if there had been new state money for repairs. (The states provide money for interstate repairs, but most of the tab is supposed to be paid by the feds.) But Pawlenty’s vetoes are symptomatic of a society that thinks it can survive on the cheap.

Americans have a general aversion to taxes of any kind – unlike their counterparts in the western European social democracies, where sacrificing for the common good is a given - and American politicians play to that sentiment. Few pay attention to the constant warnings about a deteriorating infrastructure. The 40-year-old Minneapolis bridge was rated as "structurally deficient" in a 2005 federal inventory, but it was hardly unique.

Not surprisingly, the 18.4-cent federal tax on a gallon of gas (a tax designed to raise money for interstate transportation repairs) hasn’t been raised in 14 years. It last happened in '93, during a Democratic Congress. But, in the years since, the drill has been that Republicans don’t want to raise taxes, and Democrats fear being tarred as tax-raisers. Indeed, John Kerry spoke up for a gas tax hike back in the early ‘90s, and the Republicans pounded him for that in TV ads during the 2004 presidential campaign.

In fairness, however, Congress in 2004 did propose to raise the federal gas tax by 4 cents a gallon…but the measure died when President Bush threatened to veto any highway spending bill that included a tax increase. On the campaign trail that year, he complained about the Democrats, saying "there are some in the other party in Washington who would like to raise gas taxes. I think it would be wrong. I think it would be damaging to the economy," while omitting the fact that many Republicans were also backing a gas tax hike.

Bush's stance was unfortunate, because the federal Highway Trust Fund, which depends on the federal gas tax for its revenue, is now projected to go into the red in 2009, for the very first time.

But now that bodies are floating somewhere in the Mississippi River, the mood in Washington has shifted. One Republican congressman, Tom Petri of Wisconsin, a longtime fiscal conservative who did back a gas tax hike in 2004, said yesterday: “People think they're saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this.” And Bush is suddenly talking about sending financial aid to Minnesota, along with his prayers.

Yet even though Bush is pledging to help the state by sending emergency money, his press secretary is suggesting that the state is to blame for the emergency. Tony Snow argued yesterday, "if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."

Expect in the days ahead to hear a surge of rhetoric about the need for long-term thinking (before the Minnesota incident is largely forgotten, at least outside of Minnesota). The American Society of Civil Engineers believes that we're spending only 60 percent of the money that would be required to safeguard our roads and bridges. Put another way, the ASCE says that we need to spend $9.4 billion a year over the next 20 years to make things right.

Sounds like a daunting annual tab. On the other hand, we’re currently spending around $9 billion in Iraq every month, just so the terrorists won’t follow us home and blow up our bridges during our evening commute.

Speaking of Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gets the quote of the week. On his plane yesterday, he said he was disappointed that the dispatch of 30,000 additional U.S. troops has not inspired the Sunni and Shiite politicians to make nice to each other:

“I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging on the national level…We probably all underestimated the depth of mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.”

There it is, your bridge repair money at work.