Who's to Blame?

In the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse, it's time to take a hard look at the politicians and policies that may have contributed to the disaster

Turns out popular policy isn't always good policy. Aside from looking wasteful when the state budget bottomed out in 2002, those funds could have gone to a roadway system that everyone knew was badly in need of an overhaul. In 2000, the rebate took some $200 million away from transportation needs. More saliently, Ventura also urged lawmakers to cut license tab registration fees that year, a move that depleted the highway trust fund by some $170 million annually.

Ventura wasn't the only governor who was shortsighted with transportation funding. For years, Arne Carlson said he was against an increase in the gas tax, and though the state Senate passed one in 1997, the measure didn't pass the House because Carlson wouldn't support it. For most of his tenure, Carlson was more interested in using tollbooths as a revenue source, but the idea never took off.

In short, both governors ignored the fact that our roadways were deteriorating.

Mitigating factors: The gas tax, which was last increased in 1988 from 17 to 20 cents a gallon, has long been unpopular with Minnesotans. The state was running budget surpluses during most of Ventura and Carlson's tenures in office, and raising taxes didn't seem necessary.

The Bureaucracy

Aside from a lack of money to get matching funds for federal projects, the many steps required for reviewing and planning Minnesota's roadways and interstates is hopelessly tangled up in red tape.

For example, federal law requires that a regional planning agency oversee transportation dollars sent to the state. For the seven-county Twin Cities area, that agency is the Metropolitan Council. The council takes its cue from the Transportation Advisory Board, which was created by the state legislature in 1974. The board is responsible for reviewing MnDOT plans and reports, and issuing recommendations to the Met Council, which accepts or rejects the board's recommendation as a whole. Then the council takes its case to the legislature and the governor's office, which decide which projects need to be funded.

The biggest problem with the system, of course, is that urgent projects get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, and pet projects jump to the head of the line—especially new construction rather than repair, because, politically speaking, such ventures are far sexier to lawmakers and constituents alike. In other words, the system is not only arcane, but also highly susceptible to politicization.

Mitigating factors: In recent years, the Met Council has had its work cut out for it, with folks like Pawlenty, Strom, and a host of other local neo-con think-tankers being openly hostile to the regional planning agency. Even if the Met Council and MnDOT had been working in perfect concert and sounding the bells for the right projects at the right time, it's likely their pleas would have fallen on deaf ears.

The Federal Government

Blaming the collapse of a bridge in Minnesota on the war in Iraq might seem like a parody of knee-jerk liberalism, but that doesn't mean there isn't some truth in it.

Of course, inadequate federal funding of transportation infrastructure is a phenomenon that precedes the present administration. Former DFL Sen. Dave Durenberger recalls the same frustration two decades earlier during the Reagan years. "I was trying to get colleagues and the president to see that our federal highway system was deteriorating at an alarming rate, but no one wanted to hear it," he says.

Even so, it's impossible not to think longingly of the $450 billion-plus we've squandered in Iraq. Terrorists might not have blown up the I-35W bridge, but they certainly distracted us from the pressing problems at home.

Mitigating factor: Donald Rumsfeld isn't transportation secretary.

Shiny New Toys

Politicians like to build things. They like ribbon cuttings and newspaper photos and structures bearing their own illustrious names. Proof of this phenomenon? The Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing.

Closer to home, the same phenomenon partly explains why the legislature can find half a billion dollars to spend on the Hiawatha light rail line, but can't scrape up sufficient resources to maintain roads and bridges. Or to cite a more egregious example, it's why, when all is said and done, we will likely have spent somewhere in the area of $2 billion dollars on sports stadiums. Nobody gets a PR boost when MnDOT allocates additional funds to reinforce gusset plates.

"Bridges actually are in better shape than a lot of other parts of our infrastructure," says Kent Harries, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's going to get worse, and it's going to get exponentially worse."

Mitigating factor: The argument pitting highways against public transit is wrongheaded. The truth is that substantial investment will have to be made in both to keep up with the state's transportation needs.

It's amazing how a tangle of steel and concrete and bodies in the Mississippi River can concentrate minds and galvanize action.

It wasn't 72 hours after the bridge collapsed that Governor Pawlenty was conceding the need to increase the gas tax. Congress signed off on a $250 million emergency appropriations bill before the week was over. By the end of last week, plans to build a new bridge were on the fast track. The goal is to have it finished by the end of 2008.

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