Talking Turkey About Pork

I-70_BridgeIn the last week, budget talks have surfaced out of my Foggy Bottom echo chamber and the looming fight between House Republicans, the Senate, and, of course, the White House is starting to become a sore topic. More than one piece I read claims that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget – the one that cuts everything to the bone – is DOA for the usual reasons. To the left, it cuts too much. To the right, it doesn’t cut enough, especially “pork,” or as one blogger put it, “roads and bridges.”

While anyone with a whit of fiscal restraint agrees that federal dollars dedicated to “bridges to nowhere” are a complete waste, even if workers are employed while the darn things are built, what about the ones that actually carry cross-country interstates across rivers? What about the roads that are accessible to all Americans because President Eisenhower decided that we were going to link up all our cities via a highway system that was sponsored by the Federal Government?

And what about the fact that the original group of these roads and bridges – some of which cross state lines – are almost 60 years old and were built for a different time, when there was less traffic and the idea of a “big rig” was yet to be born? (Ask any engineer about the concept of fatigue and stress when it comes to steel construction, and the concept that bridges need to be replaced every now and then might start to penetrate.)

Roads and bridges, in this context, are part of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, the conduits that keep commodities flowing and business moving. Each and every one of us benefits from this system every day, even if the roads and bridges themselves are technically owned by the states for the most part. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the materials that build our houses, the crates that store our stuff while we move, the gasoline we put in our cars…all of it moves over roads and bridges at some point. And more often than not, it moves over public roads that everyone can use – the interstates.

The entire federal highway system is supposedly funded with a combination of fuel taxes, both federal and state, local bond issues, sales taxes, and more. But that doesn’t really cover it, especially when honest capital improvement projects are needed. To do it right is not cheap. States maintain the roads and bridges within their lines, including eyeball inspections and finding a way through state budgets augmented by federal cash from the Highway Trust Fund to keep driving surfaces in good shape and, hopefully, ensure that none of it fails.

That didn’t quite work with the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, but we are assured it collapsed due to a design flaw, not lack of maintenance. That might be true, but for those of us living in river cities with aging (or REALLY old) major bridges carrying the nation’s interstates which are constantly in a state of repair, it’s not that reassuring.

See, in my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, the metro region’s 7th driving bridge over the Mississippi River is currently under construction. (See the photo above of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge, which is now connected.  In addition to the driving bridges, there are a couple rail bridges that are privately owned.) It will carry only Interstate 70 once the approaches are complete, thus alleviating some severe congestion and traffic problems on the newest of our bridges which is aging far faster than it should due to fatigue or, simply, wear and tear with three other interstates and a couple state highways using it as well.

We’ve been waiting 30 years for this new bridge. Why? Because, it was largely considered to be “pork” for a very long time, not just in Congress, but in both the Missouri and Illinois state houses.

Oddly enough, it was thanks to the I-35 bridge disaster that the new one got built. Two days after the Minneapolis incident, our disgrace of a daily rag did their good deed for the decade and put all ten of the major bridges – 6 over the Mississippi, three over the Missouri and one over the Meramec – on the front page of the paper along with their most recent inspection numbers, as well as more information on how those numbers are determined. It seems that every bridge in the country is “eyeball” inspected every other year and they are rated for safety purposes. At the time, two of the less travelled bridges were less than five years old (although, one of those is up at Alton, so it probably shouldn’t count). The oldest, which is owned by the City of St. Louis, has a traffic deck that was put on in the 90’s and the steel was replaced not too long before that. (The caissons still date to 1867.) Those three were in the best shape.

The major cross-country bridge, the Poplar Street (completed in 1967), which happens to be the newest in the city, carrying I-70, I-64, I-55, etc., was in the worst.

As a result of the entire discussion at the time, all ten bridges were inspected within two weeks – one a year ahead of schedule, showing a GIGANTIC crack that was immediately repaired. (That span, which carries westbound I-70 over the Missouri River, was blown up to great fanfare over the winter and is currently being rebuilt. It was cheaper than fixing it constantly.)

And then a minor miracle happened. After years of arguing over whether or not the new bridge was needed, the governors of both Illinois and Missouri, along with federal transportation officials, locked themselves in a room and hammered out an agreement on the new bridge. It’s half the size originally planned, the cost was split three ways between the states and the fed (and paid out to architects, engineers, construction companies, workers, materials suppliers, etc.), but it got done, and we are not complaining about the pricetag. All because we all know that any bridge failure over the Mississippi here would make the Minneapolis collapse look like a fender bender. (Illinois’ cost was higher as all new elevated approaches had to be built on that side.)

When the words “roads and bridges” and “pork” are put together by conservatives, in the context of budget talks, issues such as outlined above never seem to come into play. My fellow fiscal hawks…the interstate system was started in 1955. As each segment was built, it was state of the art. Much of it no longer is and either needs serious restoration work or replacing. Yes, the states are responsible for the building and upkeep, but why should they foot the entire bill for a federal system? Since local traffic is the majority of use, yes, the states should pay a significant portion, but why the absolute prohibition on “roads and bridges” that might actually be productive in some way? Why is it not even considered and just flat out dismissed as plainly “unconservative”?

In these parts, there’s been discussion on tolls for the interstates…that would jack up prices for everything. One way or another safe roads and bridges have to be financed. The big question is how do we want to pay for it.  Discussion, at least, regarding some federal dollars for major improvements to the interstate system could be discussed, at least, without too much trouble.  After all, the freedom afforded by the open road is a national obsession.

This cannot be the only region with these issues. We Americans value our transportation conveniences too much for the rest of the system to be barely used and fairly pristine. Everyone would benefit if projects were prioritized based on cross country traffic needs, rather than all of it scrapped because one bridge goes to nowhere.

p.s. I drove over the Poplar Street Bridge not too long ago. To put it mildly, the traffic deck has been patched so many times, the SUV shocks were ineffective. Because of the moisture of the river, it has to be resurfaced in daylight, too. The smoothness never seems to last very long. So, as soon as the Stan Span (the new bridge) is finished, the PSB is scheduled to get a new traffic deck.

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Categories: Politics, Transportation

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5 replies

  1. No, you are quite correct. My own view (down with little research and very suspect) is that the highway trust fund should be returned entire to the states to use as they deem fit, although restricted to roads and bridges. I rather like the idea of privatised (and toll) interstates in most cases, and it has worked quire well for Indiana. Somehow I try to believe the states are smart enough to realize that interstate roads are essential, at least I hope so.

    A lot of the problem in my view is that the trust fund has been pillaged to subsidise air travel, which needs to grow up and stand on its own feet.

    At that point I think you could make a case for privatised rail service again, at least in city pairs like St. Louis and Chicago. Chicago to LA is questionable but perhaps as a series of corridors.

    The hardest part of the whole thing is unsubsidising air travel. But if done we might actually fall into a rational transportation system.

    • Interestingly enough, Chicago to both STL and Kansas CIty would be a starting point for rail. Both track systems are in place. Actually, the track beds are there to LA, they just aren’t used anymore.

      I guess I get frustrated when conservatives don’t think through a problem or issue before outright dismissing consideration for other viewpoints. And with the transportation system being used by everyone, there should be some shared costs. Tolls are an option to be considered. In these parts, it will be a hard sell, but it’s at least worth considering.

      • Yep, CHI-STL used to support 20+ trains on about 5 or so roads, Kansas City would fit well with that I would think. Detroit, Indy, and Milwaukee/Madison also had a bunch. Yeah, LA runs down the old SF route mostly, I think and Frisco the old Burlington Zephyr route.

        I do as well, it’s all very well to cut spending but,we’ve still got to get around, and roads need maintenance and upgrades. That’s why I don’t think I’d support privatising anything but Interstates, and maybe not all of them. The problem mostly is that we’re subsidising stuff that has no purpose, really, like California’s light rail. The original UP was like that as well, starting from nowhere, ending at another nowhere and going through nowhere on the way but, that was built to tie Cali to the Union, and that’s also why it was so corrupt, it had to be, nobody could figure out how they were going to even come close to expenses.

        My problem is more that we cross subsidise things that a free market wouldn’t support, I like my commuter air to Denver but, I doubt I would pay the actual cost of it, where rail service is pretty cheap although it does require surface transport if we’re not to totally screw up the freight roads. There was a reason why the UP tore down their stations almost as soon as Amtrak decided to use the Burlington, passenger service with all the stops screws up the traffic pattern.

        So often the problem is that everybody is in their own little box, instead of thinking transportation (freight or passenger) cause everything competes with everything, and that why it should carry it’s own cost. By the way, teleconferencing also competes in the passenger market, and should more.

      • I hate to argue about light rail, because in some places, there’s not enough ridership to make it worth it. But here, we only have two lines and because of the way they were built with the main line on the old Wabash bed and using the Cupples Station tunnel that had been closed up for decades, it was a quarter of the original cost – and there is a station less than a block from each major league sports venue. There’s a station at both major medical centers in the city…yeah, STL met ridership goals about 20 years before the deadline, BUT because placement was strategic (out to the airport, one line goes to Scott field, multiple stops downtown, bus hubs built at stations with no commuter lots, commuter lots) it’s now fairly self-sustaining. A monthly pass for the complete system is affordable.

        And, yeah, in the beginning, it was subsidized with federal dollars.

  2. A well-chosen subject, much neglected.
    Infrastructure makes a pretty fair stand-in for the country’s problems, seems to me. Roads, bridges, underground utilities are aging and becoming a liability nationwide. Updating will be in the trillions. The money has gone to social spending and it isn’t coming back. That stuff doesn’t vote…
    We lack the money to maintain all that. We lack the money to pay the pensions owed city, county and state workers. We lack enough income to pay Social Security and healthcare benefits; the money to fund our military activities around the world and most certainly, the money to repay existing debt. CL’s personal share of Federal debt to repay (no state, county or city included) stands at $148,000. When are you going to pay up? (National Debt: http://usdebtclock.org/)

    We’re broke, spending the house’s tab and we don’t realize it. The bartender is gonna say “thats all, buddy!” one of these days when we arise on Monday, the enforcer’s gonna be waiting for us to show…

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