Minnesota’s Bridge Problem

The politicians here in Minnesota have been pushing to raise gas taxes. Thanks to a recently release report on the condition of Minnesota’s bridges [PDF] the politicians have the justification they need to sucker people into accepting the increase. Without the increase in gas taxes, according to the politicians and the people who are stupid enough to believe them, dilapidated bridges won’t receive the repairs they need. But within the report a critical piece of information exists that seems to be getting ignored by the alarmists:

And a staggering 90 percent (750 total) of Minnesota’s 830 deficient bridges are maintained by local entities.

Herein lies the biggest problem. A vast majority of the bridges in need of repair are locally owned and maintained. That means local governments are responsible for raising the funding necessary to repair or replace those bridges. As the report notes the only other option these local entities have is to get down on their knees and beg federal and state governments for consideration in budgets they are unlikely to get:

In MAP-21, the current federal transportation law, Congress reduced access to dedicated funding for the repair of most locally-owned bridges. Although these bridges account for nearly 90 percent of all deficient bridges nationally, all dedicated federal bridge repair money now goes toward the ten percent of deficient bridges on the National Highway System (which do, admittedly, carry far more traffic each day.)

These locally-owned bridges provide essential links, and those who use them also deserve to be safe. Given the budget woes of so many local governments, there is little prospect of reducing the repair backlog absent federal or state assistance. As it stands now, however, these bridges are forced to compete with all other local priorities such as health care and public safety. At the state level, these bridges are often at the mercy of the budgeting process, and unless the state’s overall transportation budget grows through an increase in the gas tax or other funding sources, the condition of these bridges is unlikely to markedly improve in the coming years.

So the federal government only gives money for the maintenance of state-owned bridges and the state seldom provides local entities with assistance to repair or replace bridges. Supposedly increasing gas taxes will net more funding for local entities but I fail to see the logic in that conclusion. Especially when you consider how the state divvies up transportation funding:

In Minnesota, out of the $627 million on average spent annually on road expansion and repair from 2009-2011, only 40 percent ($250 million) went toward repair and maintenance.

The state appears to be more concerned with building new infrastructure than it is with maintaining what already exists. Unless somebody knows of some change in heart that exists at the state level I don’t know why anybody would believe additional gas taxes wouldn’t be used to increase expansion instead of maintenance.

What incentive does the state have to priorities local infrastructure over its own? Given the option of improving your home or your neighbor’s home what would you choose? Most people would choose to improve their own. For some reason people believe that the state is an exception to the self-interest inherent in humanity. It’s not. There is no reason to believe raising gas taxes would provide local governments with funding to improve their decaying bridges. And even if there was an assurance given by the state it could go unfulfilled or the conditions could be changed a year later. The biggest problem with political solutions is that they only last as long as the currently rulers. If the next set of rulers decide the last set’s policies were undesirable they will change them.