Of Bridges and Taxes
Should we raise taxes to pay for road and bridge repair? In the wake of the Minnesota bridge collaspse, many politicians are certainly saying that we should. But what have they done with the road money that they already have?
James Oberstar, the Minnesota Democrat who runs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, recently stood beside the wreckage and recommended an increase in the 18.4-cent-a-gallon federal gas tax, as a way to prevent future bridge collapses. His wing man, Alaska Republican and former Transportation Chairman Don Young, agrees wholeheartedly.
As it happens, these are the same men who played the lead role in the $286 billion 2005 federal highway bill. That's the bill that diverted billions of dollars of gas tax money away from urgent road and bridge projects toward Member earmarks for bike paths, nature trails and inefficient urban transit systems.
As recently as July 25, Mr. Oberstar sent out a press release boasting that he had "secured more than $12 million in funding" for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill. But $10 million of that was dedicated to a commuter rail line, $250,000 for the "Isanti Bike/Walk Trail," $200,000 to bus services in Duluth, and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl. None of it went for bridge repair.
Even transportation dollars aren't scarce. Minnesota spends $1.6 billion a year on transportation--enough to build a new bridge over the Mississippi River every four months. But nearly $1 billion of that has been diverted from road and bridge repair to the state's light rail network that has a negligible impact on traffic congestion. Last year part of a sales tax revenue stream that is supposed to be dedicated for road and bridge construction was re-routed to mass transit. The Minnesota Department of Economic Development reports that only 2.8% of the state's commuters ride buses or rail to get to work, but these projects get up to 25% of the funding.