Bridge Collapse: Whose Roads Are They Anyway?

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Not that long ago, I rode my bike to work along Minneapolis’ West River Parkway—underneath the I-35W bridge—every day, so it was particularly heartbreaking to watch CNN last night, with all that footage of twisted steel and crumpled concrete, the exhausted and frightened voices on cell phones. (And there’s still more Minnesota in me than I knew—my first thought was, “Thank God it’s not January.”)

This morning, my inbox was full of messages from friends and relatives, assuring everyone that they are okay, noting how “every day we have is a gift.” But some of my friends were also angry, and one raised a point that hasn’t been picked up in the national press. She wrote,

Earlier this year, in February, the state legislature wrote a bill that would have raised the gas tax by five cents per gallon. [Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the ultra-powerful Transportation Committee] had gone to the statehouse and told legislators that if they passed the bill, he’d match it with fed funds—for a total of up to $1 billion. The bill passed the House and Senate by large majorities, but Pawlenty vetoed it, citing his longstanding, budget-devastating promise of no new taxes. Instead, the governor floated a plan to pay for improvements with bonds, otherwise known as loans.

Of course, this money wouldn’t have come through in time to fix 35W, and if it had there’s no saying it would have been spent on improving an old freeway bridge in the city rather than build a new interchange in the suburbs. But the point is, there are only three ways of dealing with roads, bridges, and public transit (remember transit?): Decide, as a society, that we need them and will pay for them; let them fall apart; or turn them over to the private sector. The first is what we did in the great public-works era from the late 1800s to the 1970s; the second is what we’ve done since; and the third is what we seem about to do, as Dan Schulman and James Ridgeway documented in Mother Jones a few months ago.

Privatization sounds sweet: Companies will take these old roads off our hands, and pay us for them!. And that would be great if it worked. But to make roads profitable you have to charge tolls, and to throw off enough profit for private investors, you have to charge tolls a lot higher than the state would. So privatization means new and higher tolls; upgrades only for roads in profitable places; and, overall, more money for less service. There is a lot more collapsing in the nation’s highway system than a single bridge.

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