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Broken Bridges, Broken System

September 20, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
While federal investigators probe the physical reasons for the deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse - was it de-icing fluid, the extra weight of construction materials or even pigeon droppings? - all Minnesotans should be looking into the tragedy's deeper economic, political and managerial background.

That's because this failure of steel and concrete is likely to be repeated time and again if we don't correct the policy failures that preceded it.

Transportation funding in the United States is rife with perverse incentives to build new roads, bridges and transit lines at the expense of maintaining the aging infrastructure we have.

The federal government provides most of the money for new trunk highways and bridges and next to nothing for keeping them safe and sound. Politicians win points with voters by cutting ribbons on new mobility projects, but no one cheers the mundane work of maintenance. Road and bridge contractors lobby for new construction, not stewardship of existing assets. The public clamors for relief from both freeway congestion and taxation.

Something's gotta give, and it's usually the unglamorous work of inspection and maintenance.

So it was no surprise that Gov. Tim Pawlenty, faced in 2003 with a gaping state budget deficit along with strident demands for more highway construction, financed $800 million in road projects by cutting 700 Minnesota Department of Transportation jobs in design, inspection and maintenance.
Where once there were 30 bridge inspectors in MnDOT's metro district, there were only 25 at the time of the bridge collapse, even though with new construction there are more, not fewer, bridges to inspect.

As short-sighted as that seems now, it made near-perfect economic sense before the collapse. Inspections identify costly short-term repairs and maintenance that must come from state coffers. It's tempting to defer that work until a deteriorating bridge can be totally replaced with 80 percent or 90 percent federal funding.

That was the state's hope for the doomed 35W span: build a brand new bridge sometime after 2020. Meanwhile, MnDOT rejected a $1.5 million proposal to strengthen fracture-prone joints in the bridge's steel trusses, at least partly because of cost. Once the bridge fell, the expenses became incalculably greater: 13 deaths, more than 100 injuries and a projected loss to the Twin Cities economy of $60 million.

"It's never going to be sexy to spend money to maintain bridges," said Jennifer Lovaasen of AFSCME Council 5, the union that represents Minnesota's bridge inspectors. "Motorists don't see them from underneath, but we do. Whenever MnDOT cuts maintenance and inspections staff, safety standards go down with them."

Such talk might be expected from a public employee union spokesperson. But consider the surprising statements of Robert Poole Jr., director of transportation studies for the Reason Foundation, at a recent Minnesota luncheon sponsored by the conservative Center of the American Experiment.

Poole noted that the value of fuel taxes has fallen so steeply that they don't even pay the real costs of maintaining roads and bridges. Then, when asked how many more bridge failures it will take to impel government to fix fragile infrastructure, Poole answered: "I hope not more than one or two more, across the country. I'm trying to be a realist."

Minnesota U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, the House transportation chairman, has faced criticism as being an architect of a system that shortchanges maintenance of old roads and bridges in favor of building  new. But he responded to the bridge disaster with a plan to raise the federal gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon for three years to pay for prompt upgrades of thousands of the nation's structurally deficient bridges.

President Bush, a Texas oilman and unswerving adherent of no new taxes, immediately rejected the proposal. Earlier, however, Bush swiftly signed Oberstar's bill to rebuild the 35W bridge with $250 million in federal funds.

So the beat goes on. If you build it, the political plaudits will come. But unless you care for what you've built, lives will be lost.

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