The Public Policy

Infrastructure Gridlock

Inadequate funding isn't the problem facing our aging bridges -- it's that politics, much of it anti-auto, delays repair for years on end.

By 8.10.07

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In the wake of the Minneapolis bridge disaster, transportation journalists are searching for local bridges in danger of collapse. This is already stimulating proposals for huge tax increases for new infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the U.S. has a $1.5 trillion backlog of infrastructure projects. But this number should be taken with a grain of salt, as it merely sums the wish lists of more than a dozen different interest groups. Efforts to fulfill these wishes would become pork fests providing absolutely no assurance that money will be spent where it is really needed.

The problem is not inadequate funding. The real problem with deteriorating bridges and highways is a ponderous transportation planning process under which it takes decades to do anything.

Case in point: a 2004 inspection of the Sellwood bridge in my old hometown of Portland found it so riddled with cracks that engineers closed it to trucks and buses. In a sane world, they would have started building a replacement right away.

In fact, a private company offered to replace it by 2010, but local planners rejected the proposal. They expect to take until at least 2017 to plan and build a replacement.

Moreover, the planning process allowed parochial local interests to prevail over the best interests of the region as a whole. A recent Portland news article quotes a Sellwood neighborhood resident saying that, when they finally do replace the Sellwood Bridge, the new one cannot have any more capacity than the old because "we're not interested in becoming a freeway" for people who live outside the neighborhood.

This is an all-too familiar refrain. In 2001, the Oregon legislature approved the replacement of hundreds of Oregon bridges. But, even though Oregon's population has more than doubled since most of those bridges were built, transportation planners decided no new bridge should have any more capacity than the bridge it replaced.

Automobiles provide more than 80 percent of American passenger travel and have greatly contributed to our wealth, health, and social well-being. Yet transportation planning in too many cities has been taken over by anti-auto groups aiming to divert billions of dollars of highway user fees to rail transit projects that will never carry more than 1 or 2 percent of urban travel.

In 1996, for example, Minneapolis-St. Paul planners decided that future "expansions of roadways will be very limited" in that region. "As traffic congestion builds," planners hoped, "alternative travel modes will become more attractive."

Since I35-W is one of the most congested routes in the Twin Cities, proposals to replace and expand the bridge there would have been opposed by anti-auto interests. Instead, they built a costly light-rail line that actually increased congestion on parallel highways.

Rail transit offers an illusion of being environmentally sound. But today's cars are as safe, clean, and energy efficient as any transit system in the country. If we need to reduce greenhouse gases, we will do it through new auto technologies, not by reducing our automobility.

As a matter of principle, infrastructure spending should be based on markets and user fees, not political whims and caprices. If users are not willing to pay the cost, we don't need the infrastructure. But when users will pay, government shouldn't prevent them from getting the facilities they need.

Local, state and national legislators who want to meet America's transportation needs should replace transportation planning laws that delay needed improvements with systems of user fees that ensure funding for the things we really need -- like bridges that don't fall down.

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About the Author

Randal O'Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the book Reforming the Forest Service and a recent Cato paper titled "The Perfect Firestorm: Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs Under Control."