How about a “Bridge to Everywhere”?

In an editorial in today’s Washington Post, Felix G. Rohatyn and Warren Rudman propose a solution to decaying infrastructure in America. Specifically, they highlight two examples.

On the Gulf Coast, the failure to invest adequately in the levees of New Orleans and to prepare for or manage the resulting disaster was obvious to the world.

On the Pacific Coast, in the state of Washington, a quieter crisis loomed. The region’s infrastructure had been outstripped by growth. But the new governor, Christine Gregoire, had the courage to impose a phased-in motor fuels tax to repair the state’s dilapidated and congested roads and bridges. Her opposition tried to repeal [ed. note: Initiative 912] the legislation with a ballot initiative, but thanks in part to the support of the state’s most powerful business leaders, voters stood by her and supported the tax, which would cost the average driver about $1 a week. They appeared to understand that this is a small price to protect lives threatened by bridges such as Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct, a twin deck freeway that is used by 100,000 vehicles a day and that could collapse in an earthquake. Their last-minute intervention may have prevented one more disaster for now, but the opposition will undoubtedly be back.

I only know the general details of how Gov. Gregoire imposed the motor fuels tax, and I’m not impressed by the idea that raising taxes is courageous, but I’m fine with the facts mentioned so far. Infrastructure is in dangerous condition. Something needs to be done. Admittedly I don’t remember the last major earthquake in Washington state, but deteriorating infrastructure is still bad. However they pay for it, the improvements seem wise. However, as I stated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, fixing the problem at the local level, where information will be most accurate and current, is best.

I’m also aware that Washington isn’t the only location in America with infrastructure problems. Any short drive through the D.C. area will provide the same revelation, though I don’t know of anything specifically in immediate danger of falling down. As with the Wilson Bridge, though, proactive is best. So how do Mr. Rohatyn and Sen. Rudman arrive at this conclusion within a few short paragraphs?

Americans may not want “big government,” but they want as much government as is necessary to be safe and secure. Today state and local governments spend at least three times as much on infrastructure as the federal government does. In the 1960s the shares for both were even. Even so, increases in state spending have not been enough to check the decline in many of our public assets. A new type of federal involvement would be a powerful initiative and would require a new focus. Rebuilding America is a historic task; we have the means to do it.

I suspect that the authors haven’t noticed the federal deficit lately. Otherwise, I doubt they’d say we have the means to do this at the federal level. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a powerful initiative, but rather, a power-grabbing initiative. The federal government did this with the levees in New Orleans. How well did that work?

More interestingly, doesn’t the Washington example show that state and local governments are better equipped to know which infrastructure projects are most urgent? We can argue about whether or not an increased motor fuel tax is the way to pay for upgrades, but I’d rather Washington’s residents determine that. I also expect them to pay fund them. Just like my fellow Virginians and I should pay for road improvements in Northern Virginia.

After proposing the expansion of federal control, the authors offer a funding scheme that, in all honesty, I’m not quite sure I understand. It involves something about a national investment corporation (NIC) and “self-financing” bonds with a federal guarantee. It sounds more like Social Security IOUs than anything. If someone cares to read the article and decipher how the NIC would work, I’d be happy to listen. For now, I’m resigned to regarding it as a central planning sleight-of-hand that would transfer control and decision-making from where local knowledge resides to Washington, while spreading tax obligations everywhere. I’m not persuaded.

By the end of the editorial, the authors acknowledge that they’ll face opposition, although they fail to understand why:

There will no doubt be opposition to solving this problem. Advocates of “small government” will characteristically oppose government’s performing its valid, historical role. Critics will accuse the NIC of being a “new bureaucracy” when, in fact, it might be the only practical approach to reform in the existing bureaucracies.

I don’t oppose solving this problem. Claiming that “small government” advocates characteristically oppose this is incorrect. “Small government” advocates expect the government to perform its necessary, appropriate tasks. However, building roads, bridges, airports and water projects are for state and local governments. Just because we’ve historically violated that does not mean we should continue to do so, adding more bureaucracy and impossible-to-deliver promises to the government heap.