National view: Beware the cries of alarmists, lobbyists and special interestsThankfully there were no fatalities in May after the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in the state of Washington. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with injured people and their families.
By: Emily Goff and Alan Pisarski, Duluth News Tribune
Thankfully there were no fatalities in May after the collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in the state of Washington. Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with injured people and their families.
Such incidents lead to calls for more revenue and more infrastructure spending. Lawmakers, lobbyists and other special interests seize the political opportunity. This was the case after the tragic Minnesota bridge collapse in August 2007. Then, members of Congress called for a higher federal gas tax, an infrastructure bank and even additional money for Amtrak, among other proposals.
As experts wrote then, these urgent calls for more spending — and revenue increases to pay for it — assumed insufficient funding for bridges was what caused the collapse in the first place. As reports revealed, a design flaw was chief among the problems in Minneapolis. In Washington state, the Skagit bridge collapsed after overhead trusses were struck by a semi-trailer truck that was too tall.
It is important to note that the Skagit bridge, built in 1955, was classified as “functionally obsolete,” which was another way of saying its design was outdated. A bridge can be “functionally obsolete” if its clearance is lower than required for newer trucks that might seek to pass over it, for example, or if the number of lanes on the bridge has not kept pace with an increase in the number of lanes of a connecting highway.
It doesn’t always make economic sense to update “functionally obsolete” bridges if the number of vehicles that pass over them doesn’t lead to structural safety concerns or doesn’t justify the economic investment.
The growing chorus among some in the transportation community and on Capitol Hill has been to embark on immediate and gargantuan spending sprees to repair what they refer to as the nation’s “crumbling infrastructure.”
Calling for sufficient repair and maintenance of the nation’s highways and bridges is not misguided. Much of this infrastructure was built decades ago, is reaching the end of its useful life, and needs repair and modernization. Even alarmists point out that a safe, sound system of highways and bridges is essential to transporting goods efficiently across the country and facilitating economic growth.
But lawmakers should be wary when these alarmists and political opportunists let their cries suggest a national emergency of the acutest kind. Lawmakers should consider the following before making any policy proposals:
No individual bridge collapse should give way to a frenzied search for new revenue, which will surely spawn so-called innovative and creative solutions to raise infrastructure spending. Rather, it should be a sober wake-up call to lawmakers that they must clean house. They must re-examine how they are spending available transportation money and redeploy it to programs that cost-effectively improve safety and mobility and reduce congestion.
Emily Goff is a research associate in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Alan Pisarski is an independent consultant in Virginia (alanpisarski.com) who also writes for the nonprofit.