Obama's stimulus money will increase traffic, but not bridge safety

For the thousands of drivers forging across the Bay Bridge at 6:30 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 8, was the day government got it right. Inspectors noticed a cracked strut amid a gargantuan retrofit project over Labor Day weekend. Round-the-clock workers did their magic. And California's oft-maligned government proved that it isn't so incompetent after all.

If only. Notwithstanding the Bay Bridge miracle, the subject of bridge repair is one that actually illustrates just how dysfunctional government has become.

According to federal data, around one-quarter of the spans in California have been deemed by inspectors to be "structurally deficient," meaning they are eligible for replacement. In San Francisco, reports show dozens of spans with low National Bridge Inventory safety inspection scores similar to the bridge that two years ago sent drivers in Minnesota plunging into the Mississippi River.

When President Barack Obama proposed his stimulus package earlier this year, he suggested that some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he said were America's crumbling bridges. But some worn-out bridges in San Francisco will have to wait for repairs, despite $887 million in federal stimulus dollars administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

A search of a database of information in the National Bridge Inventory turns up nearly 150 spans in San Francisco. Of those, 49 are listed as structurally deficient, a term that means a span is safe for traffic, yet in need of repair. At press time, a Caltrans spokeswoman was unable to prepare a list of bridges still awaiting repairs. But she identified the 38-meter bridge — built in 1936 — that carries 19th Avenue over John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park as one among those for which there are no immediate plans for repair work.

The reasons for the unwise transportation spending are multifold, but they all trace back to the kind of governmental dysfunction that, for a brief moment on the morning of Sept. 8, seemed to have been dispelled by industrious workers on the Bay Bridge.

To explain why our structurally insufficient bridges may have to wait for replacement or repair, it's useful to begin with some realities that might have been overlooked during the distracting economic panic and political euphoria when the stimulus was patched together earlier this year. The administration emphasized the funding of so-called shovel-ready projects that could begin right away.

Just because a term is pithy doesn't mean it's a good blueprint for a massive civil engineering program. Shovel-ready in the Bay Area has meant steering $145 million in Obama stimulus money toward the kind of ordinary road maintenance that should be conducted with ordinary government income, not with borrowed money. Imagine a household taking out a loan to mow the grass each week.

"This whole shovel-ready thing has been frustrating for a lot of us," MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said. "The Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, built in a time of economic downturn, weren't shovel-ready. If we are going to borrow money from our children — which, with the stimulus, we are — we should make investments that last."

In another miscalculation, much of the stimulus money, including the part directed toward transportation infrastructure, has been routed through state governments. The president and Congress seem to have been blithe about the fact that, during the past few decades, state governments such as California's have lost sight of the common good.

In February, Democrats in the state legislature were forced to prostrate themselves before a single man, Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), to get a budget passed. This meant forgoing a 12-cent gasoline tax, despite the fact that the tax hasn't been raised since 1989 and that the money largely goes toward fixing roads and bridges. Budget negotiators said a portion of the $1.6 billion in forgone gas tax money would be replaced by money from the stimulus. The overall state budget shortfall now means borrowed stimulus money will help pay for scheduled road maintenance.

From a policy standpoint, this is outrageous. Economists disagree on many things, but not on the wisdom of raising the gas tax. "Given all the problems associated with gasoline consumption — congestion, global warming, national security, pollution, damage to roads — a sufficient tax on this activity is the most efficient way to cause people to take these costs into account," said Alan Auerbach, UC Berkeley professor of economics and law and director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance.

Rentschler has watched for years as inflation-adjusted gas tax income declined, while mid-20th-century infrastructure projects decayed. "The gas tax has not been raised in the state of California since the voters last acted in June 1990, almost 20 years ago," he said. "In that time, inflation has eroded the tax by near a third. We get what we pay for, and that means for us in the year 2009, we get potholes, congestion, poor transit service, and higher vehicle repair bills due to the poor conditions of our roads."

Thanks to the perverse accommodation of Maldonado, the stimulus has encouraged Californians to remain addicted to cheap gasoline, and use it to power their vehicles over bridges that will continue to decay because gasoline is so cheap.

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