Economy & Budget

Bush Right to Reject Tax Hike After Minnesota Bridge Collapse

Gearing up for a knock-down fight over spending priorities with the Democrat-controlled Congress this fall, President Bush deserves applause for firmly rejecting knee-jerk calls for a new gas tax increase in the wake the recent deadly interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis. His strong stand is not only the right political course, but also more importantly, it is right on the merits.

Typical Democrat Response

With the drive-by-media spotlight firmly fixed on the Minnesota bridge spectacle and on a seemingly newly discovered national “infrastructure crisis,” sure enough, Democrats were first out of the box with their proposal for an all-purpose solution: They want a new government program to fix deficient bridges, presumably funded by billions of dollars in new revenues to be collected through a five-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. Never mind that there is little reason to believe that such a program, had it been in place, would have or could have prevented what happened in Minneapolis.

Rep. James L. Oberstar (D.-Minn.), the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, quickly sent out a press release about the Democrats’ legislative initiative to create a new “trust fund” for bridges, setting hearings to begin September 5. He said he was not prepared to “wait for another tragedy.” Interestingly, he was also not prepared to wait for authorities to complete basic recovery efforts at the bridge site or to even determine the probable cause of the disaster.

Other members of Congress, including Oberstar’s predecessor as committee chairman, Rep. Don Young (R.-Alaska), were quick to chime in in support of a gas tax increase to fund this or some related program for infrastructure improvements, a position many in the broader transportation community have been harboring, secretly or otherwise, for some years.

In response, President Bush hit back: “My suggestion would be that they [members of Congress] revisit the process by which they spend gasoline money in the first place.”
Alluding to the time-honored earmarking process by which members of Congress designate funding for specific pet projects, Bush said: “That’s not the right way to prioritize the people’s money. So before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge Congress to examine how they set priorities. And if bridges are a priority, let’s make sure we set that priority first and foremost before we raise taxes.”
The President’s underlying point should not go unnoticed. Two years ago, to much fanfare about addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs, Congress — led by the Young-Oberstar committee — passed a mammoth $286 billion highway and transit authorization bill titled the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The bill designated $22 billion over five years for the existing federal bridge program. The same bill allotted approximately $24 billion for more than 6,300 congressionally earmarked projects, including construction of the notorious so-called “bridge to nowhere,” the Alaska members’ priority that would cost about as much as the initial estimates of the Minnesota bridge replacement. Relatively few of the bill’s earmarked projects involved the fixing of the nation’s existing “structurally deficient” bridges.

Earmark Floodgates

Twenty years ago in 1987, President Reagan vetoed a similar highway bill because it contained a mere 152 earmarked projects, a record at the time. He argued that such earmarks detracted from the tradition of federalism that had successfully guided the federal-state partnership in setting priorities in the federal highway program. The overriding of that veto by one vote in Congress opened the earmark floodgates in subsequent years, just as Reagan predicted it would, setting the stage for where we are today.

That being said, earmarks are far from the only issue at hand in the infrastructure debate that has been thrust into public view by the Minnesota bridge collapse.  As noted, politicians now suddenly proposing solutions to the broader national “bridge crisis” don’t even yet know what caused the I-35W truss bridge to go down or who or what was at fault.  Their speculations about crumbing infrastructure, inadequate inspections and lack of money, while plausible, are still speculation until an actual cause is determined.

In point of fact, the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inspection Standards, in place since the early 1970s, and National Bridge Inventory have proven to be highly successful tools in helping states manage limited resources in a way that puts a premium on bridge safety. Under current law and regulation, less-than-perfect bridges have to be inspected at least every two years and no bridge that is deemed physically incapable of carrying maximum posted traffic loads is ever permitted to stay open. With steadily increased funding from the existing highway trust fund, the number of so-called “structurally deficient” bridges has steadily declined from about 138,000 in 1990 to some 74,000 today, and the amount of money devoted to bridge rehabilitation and repair is greater today than it has ever been.

The idea that a few more billions of dollars thrown at bridges would have prevented the Minnesota incident is implausible on its face when one considers that, as of a month ago, this particular bridge would not necessarily have been prioritized above hundreds of other bridges that had even lower inspection ratings but still remain safe and open to traffic. By the same token, had anyone known that the bridge was in imminent danger of catastrophic failure, federal and state resources to fix it would have been found through current funding mechanisms.

While there are demonstrated needs to fix more aging highways and bridges and while there are even reasonable arguments in favor of increasing the federal gas tax (Reagan backed a five-cent increase in 1982), at the moment more thoughtful approaches are called for. Improving the use of modern bridge inspection technology might be a more prudent place to start.

Today, an 18.3-cents-per-gallon federal tax on gasoline (a quintessential user fee) provides the bulk of revenue to the federal highway trust fund. Individual state gas taxes dedicated to transportation complement these revenues to pay for highway and bridge infrastructure construction and repair in a long-standing, mostly 80-20, federal-state partnership. In the 14 years since the federal tax was last raised, hard-to-control factors such as inflation, unscrupulous tax evasion and more fuel-efficient vehicles have taken a toll on revenues and purchasing power. At the same time, Congress has ensured that every last penny and more of the federal trust fund is being spent, a lot of it on much less priority items than deficient bridges.

Obviously, something went terribly wrong in Minnesota. But the politicians should let the engineers figure out what it was before jumping headlong into “solutions” that are not grounded in a more comprehensive reflection about all of the larger issues involved.

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