August 2, 2007

How can America allow more than 1 in 10 bridges to be "structurally deficient"??

"Thirteen percent of bridges in the United States share the same 'structurally deficient' rating as the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis," ABC News reports, and more than 1 and 4 are "in need of repair or do not meet the highest safety standards." We boast of being the world's most powerful nation, the world's wealthiest  ... how did we let this happen?

Was it because we didn't want to pay attention? Were we too busy obsessing about terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists to focus on more mundane yet critical safety issues like bridges and highways?

Is it because too many of us bought into the claim that "government spending is bad" and "taxes are bad," instead of understanding that it's WASTEFUL government spending that's the problem, not responsible spending for the public good? What did we think was going to happen when we spent hundreds of billions of dollars for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while cutting taxes? How many of us were willing to admit that, um, perhaps some vital public needs would be underfunded?

"Government" is us, and we need to take responsibility as citizens for making tough decisions instead of being swayed by demagogues promising we can have everything we want without ever having to pay a price.

We still don't know why the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. It may have nothing to do with lack of money or poor government oversight. Completely separate from the cause of the tragedy in Minneapolis, though, I find it appalling that my country has allowed so many of our bridges to be "struturally deficient" and still carry traffic.  Our public, common infrastructure has deteriorated because we didn't feel like paying for upkeep.

Here in Massachusetts, "Proposition 2 1/2" arbitrarily limits how much revenues communities can raise, regardless of the rate of inflation -- and has for decades. There's only so much "fat" you can cut when gas prices are soaring, health care costs are exploding, and revenues don't keep up with basic cost of living increases. Town Meetings grapple with increasingly difficult and painful choices. Capital improvements and routine maintenance get put off, and are in danger of being stretched too thin.

"Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Have Worst Bridges," says a headline on That doesn't necessarily mean a tragedy is imminent, but it does mean that we've neglected our public infrastructure here for far too long.

"Community" involves the public good and common needs. We need leaders who understand that and build support for it. It's one of the reasons I backed Deval Patrick in the primary as well as the general election -- he was willing to speak out and say what needed to be said.

We should rely less on the property tax, which can unfairly penalize people like senior citizens living in neighborhoods where property values have soared, and rely more on fairer ways to raise revenue for common needs. Some people turned to Proposition 2 1/2 because they feared being taxed out of their homes. We shouldn't be taxing people out of their homes. But instead of cutting off money for crucial public needs, we need to be finding better, fairer ways of raising revenue that don't hurt people who can't afford it. Major tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans are definitely not the answer.

"Only twice before over the last century has 5 percent of the national income gone to families in the upper one-one-hundredth of a percent of the income distribution -- currently, the almost 15,000 families with incomes of $9.5 million or more a year," the New York Times noted last month, citing an analysis of tax returns by two economists. In the 1970s, wealthy investors paid 39% on capital gains from their investments. Today? That's down to 15%.

"No new taxes" may be an appealing goal, but it's a dangerous pledge when you don't know what the future will bring. I'd prefer something along the lines of "no waste while funding what we need." Reasonable people can disagree on what a community "needs," but certain items would be acknowledged by the vast majority of us. Keeping our bridges from collapsing would be high on most people's list. It's certainly high on mine. We should do it in a cost-effective manner, and not bloated, mismanaged projects like the Big Dig. We need to do it well. But do it we must. 

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