We’ve learned a lot in the five days since the 35W bridge collapsed. Just about every state has had a major newspaper run a story about that state’s lowest-rated bridges. I guarantee you’ll think about your commute in a whole new way after reading a story like this, especially if you live in a major river city like this one (and the other one close by). All at once, it seems America got a crash course in Bridge Safety, at least the Reader’s Digest version. At a minimum, the American public was treated to a steady stream of media commentary from advocacy groups and spurned government leaders (read: Democrats) who have seen transportation budgets (to name just one of many) sacrificed to help finance tax giveaways that further widen the rich-poor gap in this country.
It’s a message that doesn’t have quite as much resonance once a bridge falls out of the sky. There’s no other way to say it. Things change when a bridge collapses. For one thing, tax policy changes. Tim Pawlenty’s whole political career (which could have a bright future) is largely premised on his no-tax pledges. He and other GOP leaders have called the idea of a gas tax to fund transportation “a joke” and “an obsession”, and have routinely roadblocked it at every level possible. But now that a bridge has fallen, the tax pledge is history. The idea of funding transportation with a gas tax is “on the table”.
You know what they say about recent-vintage GOP tax policy shifting all the burden to future generations? This is that idea come to life in vivid and heartbreaking scenes of the bridge collapse. It works as a literal image and also a metaphor. When you cheat the schools out of funding for generations, that doesn’t always manifest itself in obvious ways that grab attention like 35W. But rest assured, when corners are cut and the infrastructure is damaged and unrepaired, they collapse just like the bridge.
I’m not saying the people responsible for state and federal transportation funding necessarily have blood on their hands; there are a lot of factors at play that may have caused 35W specifically to collapse. Maybe if the GOP had agreed to yearly inspections instead of biannual, or allocated more funding for inspection technology or repairs, 35W wouldn’t have collapsed, but we don’t know that.
It’s about more than the bridge. It’s about a governing philosophy that says people should only have to pay for things they perceive they derive some benefit from. Hostility and activism from a small core of anti-taxation fanatics has grown into a potent political culture that has dominated tax policy for eight years now, not just in elected positions, but in society in general. And that’s fine; I think there are some things that have benefitted from smaller government. But bridges and highways?
The free market can’t solve everything. If you think a state or federal government is going to do infrastructure on the cheap, try it with a company that has a profit motive. There are just some things a government has to do for a society, because there’s not a way to make money from them, or because they are vital to the security of the nation. If a government has to do it, that means the people fund it via taxes. Ultimately the people decide what they want to pay to feel safe going over bridges.
All in five days, it seems people are willing to pay more. They certainly are in this state. I mean, the landscape changed. Tim Pawlenty’s big draw is fiscal restraint built on tax refunds, but now 35W will haunt him forever. It’s already haunting his Transportation Commissioner and Lt. Governor, Carol Molnau.
Crises create consciousness. When boom times are at hand, and the failures are lowered test scores, or increasing backlogs of bridges to be repaired, those discussions don’t carry much weight. It’s hard to imagine a bridge collapsing until it happens. But now an obvious and shocking failure has happened, and the paper trail isn’t kind to Tim Pawlenty or the GOP in general. I have an inkling Tim Pawlenty will be to the “pay tomorrow” philosophy of GOP tax policy what Captain Joseph Hazelwood was to drunken oil tanker driving.
But will it last? Are the American people convinced that they are willing to pay more at the pump or elsewhere to have better highways and a higher degree of confidence in their bridges? And if so, will that fundamental shift in philosophy spread to other changes in priorities? Or do we need to wait for the metaphorical bridge to fall in our schools, or enviornment, or health care system? And how will we know when that bridge collapses?