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Bridge Collapse Spurs National Infrastructure Commitment; Minnesota Should Follow Through

November 06, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Why is the 35W bridge collapse being felt more strongly across the nation than in Minnesota?

Voters from Rhode Island to California approved more than $76 billion in new taxes and borrowing for road, rail and transit improvements, including 220 m.p.h. bullet trains from San Diego to San Francisco. Minnesotans, who two years ago voted to shift existing vehicle sales taxes to roads and transit, overwhelmingly agreed on Tuesday to raise their state sales tax by $7 billion over 25 years for other vital infrastructure: clean water, wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, arts and culture.

Transportation funding appears to be an afterthought among Minnesota policymakers, particularly since the passage of the $6.6 billion 2008 state transportation bill. National results highlight Minnesota's unwillingness to properly address its aging, functionally obsolete and structurally deficient bridges and roads. The waning appeal of anti-tax ideology and a growing willingness among voters to pony up for a strong, efficient and sustainable public sector should move policymakers to invest in infrastructure.

Even in the most-watched election race of all, this trend was confirmed. President-elect Barack Obama was a U.S. Senate cosponsor of the $13 billion intercity passenger rail funding authorization enacted last month; John McCain voted no. (Minnesota fast rail initiatives are in line for $600 million of that.)

Obama also has called for a $60 billion National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to be funded by cuts in spending in Iraq, a $25 billion emergency Jobs and Growth Fund for repairs and maintenance of roads, bridges and schools and $3.9 billion for lock and dam improvements on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway. Together, these initiatives would employ 3 million Americans. McCain's infrastructure plans were limited mainly to reining in congressional earmarks, which account for 15 percent of federal transportation spending.

In September, the U.S. House passed a new $60 billion stimulus package, half of it for transportation and infrastructure projects and with $208 million ticketed for Minnesota.
The measure stalled in the Senate under threat of a veto by President Bush. Now congressional leaders are promoting a plan as much as four times larger in the upcoming lame-duck session.

Some critics say infrastructure projects won't give the sagging U.S. economy the immediate boost it needs because it takes years to plan the work. But surveys of state and local officials show that 3,600 road, bridge and transit projects costing $26 billion nationwide are ready to go once the money's there. And federal tax rebates earlier this year didn't work as hoped as wary Americans saved their windfalls instead of spending them.

Meanwhile, support for infrastructure economic stimulus is gathering even from conservatives such as columnist and commentator David Brooks, who this week called for a "National Mobility Project, a long-term investment in the country's infrastructure."

He said that "would create jobs for the less-educated workers who have been hit hardest by the transformation to an information economy ... Focusing on infrastructure would at least get us thinking about the real economy, asking hard questions about what will increase real productivity, helping people who are expanding companies rather than hedge funds."

Brooks also noted "broad political support from liberals and business groups alike" and the promise of future prosperity from "another transportation revolution." He concluded: "Smart investors are going to take advantage of the current panic to make money. A smart president could take advantage of it to build something that will last for decades and decades to come."

Smart Minnesota leaders can do the same, starting with state backing for fast passenger rail connections from the Twin Cities to Duluth and Chicago.  Now is the time to invest. The 2008 transportation bill, while substantial, only begins to fund MNDOT's reported need; it doesn't remotely approach Minnesota's need.

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