Thursday, August 2, 2007

Bridge Collapse Underscores Need for Maintenance, Not New Construction

Wednesday's collapse of the I-35W span in the Twin Cities underscores the need for a major change in the way federal and state transportation funds are spent.

The solution: Stop adding more highways and widened lanes, and instead aggressively maintain the facilities we have.

In our state, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, and CASH - - Citizens Allied for Sane Highways, led by Story Hill neighborhood activists Gretchen Schuldt and Robert Trimmier - - have been making this case for years, but politicians and the highway lobby and the regional planning commission (SEWRPC) have been going in the opposite direction.

(A 2006 US government compilation says that there are 1,335 structurally-deficient bridges in Wisconsin. On the chart in that compilation, "SD" means structurally-deficient, which the Federal Highway Administration defines this way: "Structural deficiencies are characterized by deteriorated conditions of significant bridge elements and reduced load-carrying capacity.")

But politicians love to announce a new bridge or road in their districts. Contractors make more money on new projects than maintaining older ones, and in concert with developers and subdividers, prefer new construction to the less expensive, less remunerative and more tedious business of inspections, maintenance and repairs.

So everyone at the top gets paid and paid-off, but the paying public gets short-changed in the long run.

Many bridges in the US share the same problematic deficiency rating that characterized the I-35W.

One major national study found a number of states with a significant number of bridges rated structurally-deficient, yet billions nationally in bridge repair spending went unused because states preferred to use transportation dollars on new projects.

Oklahoma was at the top of that ten-worst list, with 33.5% of its bridges structurally-deficient, whereas the national average was put at 14.2%, according to the report issued by the authoritative Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP).

Minnesota and Wisconsin were not on that ten-worst list for structurally-deficient bridges, but nearby Iowa and Michigan were.

(Wisconsin finds itself on two other top-ten negative lists compiled by the STTP, and both indicate low rating for air quality, telling us something again unsettling about the way that public funds are used, or not, on infrastructure improvements in Wisconsin.)

One STTP list showed Wisconsin spent relatively less of its transportation dollars on projects to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. The spending figure for Wisconsin was 20% less than the national average, which means fewer bike paths or other transit-related or pollution-control programs were financed here.

The second list showed an increase in exposure to bad air quality days in Wisconsin, when the national average actually improved slightly, even if the improvement in California, where most of the nation's air cleanup is occurring, was removed from the national data.)

But back to spending on road repairs: Minnesota allocates much of its transportation system maintenance dollars regionally because of political pressures, so portions of the system most in need of repair do not get attention when needed.

The rough pavement west of the Wisconsin border at LaCrosse on I-90 is a perfect example.

The regional allocation system in Minnesota maintenance and repair funds that could improve I-90 has been ticketed for use elsewhere in the state, a knowledgeable state source has told me.

Some years ago, a national study found Wisconsin the 8th worst state in the country for annual vehicle repair costs due to bad roads - - something of a hidden tax on motorists in states where road repairs were insufficient.

Even earlier, back in 1997 and the heyday of big spender Tommy Thompson's road-building binge, Mike Ivey of the Capital Times complained that the state's diversion of road repair funds into new highway projects was forcing us to drive on sub-standard infrastructure.

It's an old story.

It's all a matter of priorities. Wisconsinites and Americans everywhere need to get them changed across the country.

If we fail, there will be more tragedy and costs, like those now now burdening Minnesota, as well as the everyday nickle-and-diming of motorists in Wisconsin and elsewhere - - all traceable to upside down transportation spending that turns the logical "Fix-it-First" mentality to one of "Later-for-That."

Final note: Last October, USA Today said that the cost of upgrading all troubled bridges in the country was $63 billion.

Current cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: $12 billion a month, which means all the country's bridges could be made safer by the end of January, 2008.

Think this won't emerge as a major presidential campaign issue?


Anonymous said...

Maybe Jim Doyle should not be raiding the transportaion fund, or worrying about light rail, until we get the bridges fixed

James Rowen said...

There is no state funding for light rail, so no need to 'worry' about that.

And do you hear the highway lobby complaining that they don't have enough money for road repairs?
No: their complaints are about wanting more money to build new highways.