Monday, August 06, 2007

Bridge update

Some interesting political reactions to the 35W bridge collapse.

In Washington, the House quickly approved $250 million to rebuild it. That's rational, and unsurprising.

Here in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty is suddenly willing to sign the gas-tax increase he vetoed in two previous sessions. He is expected to call a special session devoted exclusively to addressing years of deferred maintenance on highway infrastructure.

And state DFLers (Democrats to you out-of-state readers), to their credit, have been avoiding the blame game, focusing instead on what the policy reaction should be.

Of course, some things don't change. Lt. Gov. (and MNDOT Commissioner) Carol Molnau, whose political priorities have been opposing transit projects and the gas tax, crabbed about the change.

On a gas tax, she said, "we do need to look for resources we can count on long term." But in order to solve the problem, she said, "we would have to raise gas taxes 34 or 35 cents a gallon. I don't think the motoring public can sustain that."

First, let's just note that Molnau is scaremongering a bit: the gas tax is not the sole source of revenue for transportation spending.

But let's take her at face value. The gas tax is currently 20 cents a gallon, and has not been raised since 1988. You'd have to raise it 15 cents a gallon simply to account for inflation. Another 15 cents a gallon on top of that to deal with the backlog simply isn't that onerous -- and it's called being responsible.

Especially because, as I've argued before, the real problem is that gas isn't expensive enough. Not to mention the other benefits of forcing people make rational choices about energy use.

Important as it is to address the backlog of maintenance work, however, we should try to avoid overreacting to the problem. We're not going to suddenly have a rash of bridge collapses, and we shouldn't overspend on a frenzy of needless, emergency repair work. A crash maintenance program would:

1. Drive up the cost of the projects in the short term, thanks to scarcity of materials and labor;

2. Play havoc with travel times;

3. Lead to a repeat of #1 a few decades down the road, as all those freshly repaired bridges and roads start to wear out at the same time.

4. Make the whole thing less doable politically.

So it will be good if this disaster leads us to confront the consequences of deferred maintenance. But the response should take a medium view. Increase spending and move up repair timetables, but do it in such a way that the work (and cost) is spread out over a reasonable length of time, say 10 or 20 years.

Further, the cost of maintenance should be incorporated into our long-term planning, to ensure we're only building as much infrastructure as we're willing and able to maintain. Other considerations aside, there may be times when a light rail line or bus rapid transit will be the way to go because doing so saves on maintenance costs compared to a freeway of similar capacity.

I'm not at all confident that the response will be so measured. Instead, I expect to see a combination of two extremes: "spend a lot of money now" and "talk about it, but after the dust dies down continue doing little or nothing." With luck I will be pleasantly surprised, especially here in Minnesota.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, you're getting $250 million of federal dollars to re-build it, so I can't imagine why you wouldn't.


8/06/2007 7:53 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I'm cautioning against a general overreaction to the bridge collapse, not suggesting that this particular bridge doesn't need to be rebuilt as soon as possible.

8/07/2007 7:56 AM  

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