August 7, 2007

Not A Funding Issue, Part III

Once again, the media has brought up the issue of transportation funding as a cause of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and once again the article itself contradicts the theme. The New York Times tries to paint the cause as a refusal to raise taxes -- but acknowledges that funding on transportation has hit all-time highs. Decisions on spending priorities and a desire to force change on an unwilling public has more to do with infrastructure maintenance:

Even as the cause of the bridge disaster here remains under investigation, the collapse is changing a lot of minds about spending priorities. It has focused national attention on the crumbling condition of America’s roadways and bridges — and on the financial and political neglect they have received in Washington and many state capitals.

Despite historic highs in transportation spending, the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need, has typically driven where much of the money goes. That has often meant construction of new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones.

Further, transportation and engineering experts said, lawmakers have financed a boom in rail construction that, while politically popular, has resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by a vast majority of American commuters.

And now we get to the core of the issue on infrastructure maintenance. The drive for light rail has shifted monies away from roads and bridges that people use to mass-transit systems they don't. Politicians want to build new systems in order to "cut a ribbon", as Chuck Schumer put it, to aggrandize themselves. Bridge maintenance doesn't make for many photo ops.

But it's more than that. Light rail in Minnesota consists of one line between the Mall of America and downtown. The state spent a half-billion dollars on this train that could have been spent on expanding and maintaining the actual roads that people choose to use. The Northstar, also known as the Ventura Trolley, came into being because our elected representatives thought that we should be forced to change our transportation patterns for our own good.

The Times also points out that this project is ongoing, and still eating up our transportation dollars. Minnesota recently received $12 million in transportation funding from this session's transportation and housing appropriations bill, an addition to the five-year funding bill passed in 2005. Of that money, $10 million is already earmarked for the existing point-to-point Northstar. The balance goes to bike and walking paths, a particular bone on which Rep. Jim Oberstar chews on an annual basis.

So what's the solution? More calls for gas-tax increases. We've heard it here in Minnesota, and now the Times reports that the National Conference of State Legislatures wants a 3-cent per gallon federal tax increase -- in order to send more funds back to the states in which the gasoline was bought. That's even less courageous than demanding state increases in taxes hours after a bridge collapse that has yet to be analyzed for the particular failure, in a state that already spends $2.2 billion on transportation.

What part of "historic highs in transportation spending" don't people understand? The problem here is not funding but prioritization. Instead of conducting social experiments like the Northstar, perhaps the money should go to fixing our infrastructure -- if that was even the cause of the St. Anthony Bridge collapse, which no one has established. Raising revenues for the same bad prioritization processes just means more money will get wasted and the same people will continue to make those bad decisions.

UPDATE: Slightly different topic, but the people of Stillwater aren't thrilled with their bridge, either:

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials on Monday rushed to assure St. Croix River Valley residents that the Stillwater Lift Bridge is safe.

The Pioneer Press and other media reported over the weekend that the lift bridge had a sufficiency rating of 2.8 on a scale of 100 - the second-lowest rating in the state. But MnDOT officials said the bridge was rated 42.8 during an inspection in May.

The higher number reflects $5 million of work that was done to repair the bridge in late 2005, said MnDOT's Nick Thompson. ...

Drivers should feel safe crossing the lift bridge, Thompson said. He said MnDOT wants to replace the bridge over the St. Croix River because it can't handle current traffic demands and will continue to need maintenance in order to keep it operating.

Well, 42.8 certainly represents an improvement over 2.8, but Stillwater residents recall that the St. Anthony Bridge had a rating of 50. I don't think MnDOT assurances on this score will relieve the concern of bridge travelers.


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Comments (2)

Posted by bulbasaur | August 7, 2007 5:13 PM

Local radio guy Jason Lewis suggested the Governor call a special session to re-visit the allocation of transportation funds from light rail back to highway infrastructure.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | August 7, 2007 6:07 PM

"Light rail" has almost always been a boondoggle of the highest order. When I lived in Boston in the mid 1970s, the MBTA finally started replacing their Korean-War era Green Line PCC trollies. They chose a new "light rail vehicle" that was made by Boeing-Vertol. They had all sorts of problems, including air conditioning woes, easily breakable windows, problems with the doors, etc (the doors alone had 1300 separate parts!). In 1977 LRV service had to be completely suspended for over a week when LRVs kept derailing on tight curves.

To add insult to injury, the T was not following Boeing's maintenance instructions, thus voiding the factory warranty! Boston cut its tie with Boeing completely several years later.

Some other cities that have fallen victim to the LRV boondoggle include the $1 billion project in southern New Jersey, as well as LRV lines in San Jose, Dallas, Portland Oregon, Sacramentio, and Phoenix.

The latest LRV boondoggle is currently in progress, as the Democrats who have ruled Hawai'i with an iron fist for almost 50 years are trying to get their own system in place. They've even proposed a LRV system on the neighboring island of Kaua'i, which only has a total population of 55,000!

All this reminds me of the "Simpsons" episode "Marge Vs. the Monorail".

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