Friday, August 3, 2007


J. had an excellent analysis of the bridge collapse in Minnesota, and it got me to thinking about how we invest in infrastructures. In March of this year, the GAO released a report examining how we allocate funds for basic infrastructure. Things like road maintenance are expensive to fund and difficult to garner support for.

The efficiency of the nation's transportation infrastructure is threatened by increasing demand for transportation services, and revenue from traditional funding mechanisms may be unable to keep pace at current tax rates. Revenues to support the Highway Trust Fund--the major source of federal highway and transit funding--are eroding, with recent estimates forecasting a negative balance of more than $14 billion by the end of fiscal year 2012. ... The nation's infrastructure is under great strain; congestion across modes is significant and expected to worsen.

Minneapolis, though I will defend it as a great city, is one that has poor public transportation. It relies on an antiquated busing system. The public was reluctant to invest in effective mass transit, so instead poured money into maintaining highways and freeways that reached across the ever-expanding metropolitan area. It is not unusual for people to drive more than an hour one way in traffic every day to and from work. It's been widely reported that the Minneapolis bridge, built in the '60s, was never intended to stand up to the volume of cars that drove over it every day.

In recent years, Minnesota struggled to pay for basic transportation maintenance needs under Gov. Tim Pawlenty's "no new taxes" policy. Last summer, traffic at a highway interchange (35W and 62) had massively outgrown the current set up and was delayed because no construction company was willing to take on the project for the budget allotted. Two years ago, Minnesota, a state that has traditionally refused the idea of toll roads, added tolls for single-driver cars to ride in HOV lanes as a method of raising more revenue.

Originally it was the Department of Transportation that handled all of this. Now it is primarily Homeland Security that is responsible for the infrastructure of the nation's bridges, highways, roads, and freeways. Before the bridge collapse in Minnesota, they were more worried about terrorist plots than about maintenance. When Hurricane Katrina made everyone rethink government roles, they began to examine evacuation scenarios. But according to the March GAO report, these government agencies are still trying to figure things out:

Yet the department's responsibilities in providing evacuation assistance have not been entirely clear. In addition, despite recent progress by the federal government in providing evacuation assistance, gaps remain. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has not yet clarified, in the federal government's plan for disaster response, the leading, coordinating, and supporting federal agencies to provide evacuation assistance when state and local governments are overwhelmed, and what their responsibilities are. One White House report recommended that the developing the federal government's capability to carry out mass evacuations when state and local governments are overwhelmed.

The bridge collapse in Minnesota, like Hurricane Katrina, challenges us to take a hard look at how our government agencies are organized and how to prioritize spending. Even though it took people dying to highlight it, hopefully it will eliminate the reluctance to put money into the necessary spending on infrastructure.

UPDATE: I should disclose that I was born and raised in Minnesota.

--Kay Steiger

Cross-posted at TAPPED

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