Everyone At Fault in Bridge Disaster

Thanks for stopping by, Laura -- grab a bullhorn! - WonketteWhen inexplicable tragedies happen, some turn to god, and some turn to drink. We turn to our Anonymous Lobbyist. And also drink.

The 35W bridge collapse doesn't present too many easy scapegoats -- Pawlenty and Bush do severely fuck up everything they're supposed to be in charge of managing, but America's decaying infrastructure isn't exactly the work of one or two men. No, years and years of work and lobbying went into ensuring that nothing would ever be repaired! AL explains how, after the jump.

Federal highway funding (and the lobbying that goes on around the authorizing legislation every 5 years and the appropriations every year) is a study in competing interests who more or less all want the same basic thing- more money, more money, more money. It involves everyone from construction companies (and union workers and their suppliers) who directly benefit from construction funding, to the states that benefit and want to benefit more, to businesses that benefit from better infrastructure to move their crap around the country, to environmentalists who want money for air quality things or want construction funds tied to air quality measures, to the folks who want the money used for nature trails and everyone in between -- and that's not even talking about the earmark wheedlers who only get involved once appropriations are involved. And before everyone starts calling out the women lobbyists who work transportation policy, let me stop you right now. I don't. But, I have friends that do, I know how the system works and I'm an incredibly efficient Google monkey.

Now, before I get started, let me point out a couple of (perhaps obvious) things about replacing bridges. It's really fucking expensive, and it takes a really long time. For those of us in the D.C. area, let's consider the Woodrow Wilson bridge, which both sucks, was considered structurally deficient, acts as a bottleneck and was already carrying its full recommended capacity (75,000) before the end of the decade in which it opened (1961), and currently handles about 250,000 cars a day. So, in 1988, the federal government started looking at how to replace it. Four years later, a regional coordination committee was formed, and (because of the NIMBYs in Old Town that didn't want a tall bridge to ruin their views and the fact that it needed to be a usable waterway), in 1996 the committee said the preferred alternative was another drawbridge (despite the traffic tie-ups) and the federal government approved the plan in 1997. The federal and state governments authorized the money in 1998 -- $2+ billion, by the way, $900 million of which came from the federal government. They broke ground in 2000. The bridges themselves are scheduled for completion in 2008, with the final interchange work to be completed by 2011. So, for those of you adding, that's 23 years from consideration to completion, with a direct cost of more than $2 billion dollars.

So, even if the 1990 report on the I-35 span had been serious enough to warrant early replacement, it's not unlikely that it wouldn't be done yet -- and, certainly, the 2005 report would not have had any impact yet even if it had been taken more seriously. And, while Governor Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase to fund transportation spending is a great political scapegoat at the moment, a gas tax increase for FY 08 wouldn't have had any effect on the bridge. The lack of attention to infrastructure maintenance (in Minnesota and beyond) goes back way further than either this federal or any state Administration, and there is plenty of finger-pointing that could and should go on, as far as I'm concerned.

But, to the lobbying around transportation funding. As noted above, there is authorizing legislation (the 5-year transportation bill) and the appropriations legislation that funds on a yearly basis what Congress and the Administration has agreed to in the authorizing legislation. The current transportation funding mechanism is called SAFETEA-LU, which stands for "Safe Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users," but the "Lu" is actually former Transportation Committee Chairman Don Young's wife's name, so he made his staff come up with a fucking acronym that used that because that's how stupid and parochial transportation policy is. It passed 2 years after the previous authorizing authority expired (though it was always temporarily kept in place) because of disagreements between the Republican-controlled (and pork-enamored) Congress and the Bush Administration about how much should be spent and how. Notably, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-MN) was the ranking member on the committee that developed the bill, and it was generally considered a bipartisan effort because everyone loves them the pork!

Basically, the lobbying that went around this was a money grab, plain and simple. Everyone wanted more. The only disagreement was how to get it -- generally, the business community (led by the Chamber, but including the auto and oil guys) was opposed to increased gas taxes (which is what supplies the Highway Trust Fund with money to give to states for projects), while the construction guys were more willing to ask for higher gas taxes to get more spending but not always so keen to buck the Chamber. Environmentalists wanted more money to go to things like trails and air quality and public transportation, and also usually like the gas taxes. Naturally, the Republicans were generally less keen on gas tax increases, especially as prices kept spiking and creeping up. The big issue among the states were that some states' residents paid more in gas taxes than they got back in federal highway funds, and a number of Members (including The Hammer) were keen to see this change, even if the needs analysis showed that other states needed the money more to either build roads or make improvements.

In the end, the size of the pie increased, but not by so much as to invite a veto; the gas tax stayed the same but the Highway Trust Fund was held harmless for the tax revenue losses due to ethanol usage (you only pay federal gas tax on the part of your fuel that is actually petroleum based); every state is guaranteed to get back at least 92 cents on each dollar it contributes to the Highway Trust Fund; states can do more bonding and tolling to pay for road building; Congress keeps getting to stick tons of earmarks into the appropriations legislation every year and telling the Administration and the states how to spend every last cent of the discretionary monies even if there might be other priorities; and everyone gets to more or less keep ignoring our crumbling current infrastructure in favor of new roads (which are way more popular with constituents, since they don't tie up traffic as much as that nasty roadwork). So, everyone won, sorta, and everyone lost, like usual.


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