Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Between Blair and Norfolk, Nebraska is a two-lane toll bridge. The toll is 50 cents to cross. The bridge is owned by the descendents of the man who built the bridge. The family maintains the bridge and collects toll to cross the bridge. I’m not sure how profitable private bridges are, but it might be the answer to fixing our nation’s crumbling roads and bridges. In Britain, Maggie Thatcher privatized some of their country’s roads and bridges. It has also been done in Russia. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that worldwide more than a thousand public-private deals in the transportation field have been done alone in the past twenty years. And privatization is also being done in the United States.

In Indiana, they sold their turnpike system to some Australians for twice what they thought it was worth- 3.85 billion. And the state gets the roads back in seventy-five years. The Aussies had to agreed to some guidelines that include specific maintenance. In Chicago, the Mayor sold the city’s Skyway (toll road) to the same group. The Windy City also got twice what they thought it was worth. Just goes to show you that politicians have no clue on how much something is worth.

With the recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the spotlight has been cast on our nation’s infrastructure. Nearly 20% of America’s roads are now considered in poor shape and almost 25% of the nation’s bridges are labeled “structurally deficient.” The U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that it would cost a whopping $460 billion to fix our nation’s roads and bridges. Oklahoma is right at the top-or bottom of the list in decaying infrastructure.

Oklahoma ranks first in the percent of deficient bridges in the United States with over twenty seven percent classified in that category. Our roads are the sixth worse in the U.S. Oklahoma spends a paltry four percent of the state budget on roads and bridges. The primary reason we have poor infrastructure in Oklahoma is because the Democratic Party was in power in the Sooner state until the last four years. They controlled funding and roads and bridges were not at the top of their priority list. Politicians pay little attention to fixing roads and bridges because it doesn’t buy them as many votes as a social program. Roads and bridges take too long to build and no one person benefits from their construction, unless it’s a road to one of their campaign contributors.

Privatizing might be an answer. We could sell naming rights to bridges. Large companies like Chesapeake and Devon could pay to put their name on large bridges like those over Red River. County bridges could have smaller sponsors. Local businesses could pony up some dough to keep the bridges maintained. Selling roads and bridges to Australians might work, but it’s not likely to happen here. The Aussies would have to invest too much to get the roads and bridges up to standards.

Seriously, two things need to happen. First, Congress needs to pass the Transportation Empowerment Act that Senator Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, and Senator Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma have been trying to get passed for years. The TEA would empower states with authority for the taxing and spending for highway programs and mass transit programs. In effect, it would return to the individual states the authority and responsibility for the interstate system within their state. Under the TEA, motorist and truckers who fund the system would get a more equitable return on the taxes they pay. Currently the northeastern states, Pennsylvania, New York, Conneticutt, New Jersey, and Ohio get more than they pay into the system. Oklahoma, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, North and South Carolina (note they are all red states) get back less than they collect in federal fuel taxes. DeMint & Inhofe’s proposal would shift the transportation priorities to a more local level and take the power away from the Washington bureaucrats. They propose a phasing out of the federal fuel tax-, which is now around nineteen cents, a gallon- and letting states collect that money to maintain roads and bridges.

Secondly, politicians need to spend the transportion/inflastructure money where it’s supposed to be spent. Oklahoma ranks high in the diversion of allocated federal highway funds for other uses. The state gets seven percent of state revenue from the Motor Fuels tax. The state tax on a gallon of gasoline is seventeen cents and on diesel its fourteen cents. The motor fuels tax purpose is to maintain roads and bridges. Cities and counties get about a third of it to maintain their streets and county roads- the rest goes to the state. If the state is empowered to collect more money, Oklahoma politicians have to spend it where we need it- on our roads and bridges and not on some social program.

Oklahomans are gamblers, as evidenced by the fact that forty-nine cities in the Sooner state have a casino. Think about this- the odds are 3 to 1 the bridge you cross on your way to work is structurally sound. Like those odds?

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