Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bridges, and the Funny Thing About Bad Goverment

President Bush dismissed today raising the federal gas tax to repair the nation's bridges citing fiscal responsibility.

"The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first," Bush said. "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."

This comes a week after the highway 35W bridge collapsed in downtown Minneapolis during rush hour killing five people, at least eight are still missing. As a resident of the Twin Cities, and one who traverses its bridges frequently, this event has been, perhaps, more personal than to our nation's leaders. One does not expect a major bridge, in a major city, to collapse during rush hour. It's not only stunning but obviously unacceptable.

What is also stunning is that the press has quickly uncovered previous inspections of that bridge deeming it structurally unsound. Thus I am not sure which element I find more disconcerting: the collapse of the bridge, or the wealth of information on-hand warning us that such a thing could occur and was basically ignored. Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty twice vetoed compressive transportation bills, but more on that in a moment.

Since the collapse Pawlenty has been quick to point out there are 70,000 bridges across the country that are in similar condition. His point serves two purposes. One, to illustrate the dire condition of our nation's infrastructure while at the same time assuaging fears many people have about their own bridges. After 69,999 of these unsound bridges are still standing.

But how many of these bridges are in major cities? How many carry over 100,000 cars a day as the 35W bridge in Minneapolis did? Shouldn't some priority have been given to a major bridge when it is found to be structurally unsound? Our problem is not lack of information but leaders who lack the wisdom and judgment to make the right decision with the information they have. We now know that the 35W bridge inspections had been done and their findings turned out to be an accurate harbinger of the disaster. Still, our leaders choose to take their chances. That bridge, and the pages of findings about its deficiencies, is a symbol of how we govern these days. It is now a terrible tragedy; unfortunately, and unnecessarily, a recovery zone.

There's a funny thing about conservativism, which stokes a strong American distrust for government: operations which are conducted are done so poorly that one finds the distrust reasonable. When those operations are found to be woefully inefficient, comities are formed to plumb the depths of their incompetence, but nothing changes. Amazingly, the people usually know what needs to be done without the availability of official reports. They go to their executive leaders and ask to be taxed to create the funds needed for remedy and they are turned away in the name of fiscal responsibility. Thus bad government, trying to do things for nothing, creates disasters, which fosters more mistrust in the government. In this area President Bush, and Gov. Pawlenty have done a magnificent job.

In early 2006 the Minnesota legislature produced a transportation bill which was being pushed unilaterally from both sides, and notably by business leaders, a crowd not usually anxious for more taxes, who affirmed the poor condition of our state's infrastructure. Gov. Pawlenty swiftly and dramatically vetoed the bill while musing aloud, "How dumb can they be?" The people resurrected the bill as an amendment which was voted on, and rejected, in the 2006 elections. By November 2006 enough people had seen enough inefficiency in government to allow the no-tax, something-for-nothing crowd to have its day and in the end we are left with what we (don't) pay for. Since the 35W bridge collapse Pawlenty, to his credit, says he could accept a higher gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure upgrades. A changed man, perhaps, we will see if he has discovered the leadership needed to govern above people's base fears.

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