Saturday, August 11, 2007

Time, the Slow-Motion Terrorist

To get America’s attention, people have to die--in wars, on falling bridges, in coal mine cave-ins. Even then, hearts sink, heads shake and the news moves on to the next disaster.

Now that the catastrophe du jour is infrastructure, some politicians are trying to do something constructive while public emotion is still raw. This week, a Minnesota Congressman proposed a plan to fix the nation's 73,784 bridges rated "structurally deficient" by the Department of Transportation.

Rep. James Oberstar suggested paying for the repairs with a five-cent hike in the gas tax, but the next day President Bush, about to go off on vacation, dismissed the idea of any new taxes, saying Congress should change its priorities when spending highway money.

Bringing the nation's roads and bridges into the 21st century will cost $155.5 billion, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The $75 billion in annual spending by federal, state, and local governments is not even enough to keep their condition from getting worse.

"Maintenance,” says one expert, “is just not sexy.” Politicians like new construction they can brag about to voters while posing for ribbon-cutting pictures.

If a bomb had blown up the Minneapolis bridge, politicians would be scurrying to throw money into something to satisfy their constituents. But time is a slow-motion terrorist, and nobody is eager to pay new taxes or tolls to prevent the disasters waiting to happen.

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