Bridges Fall While Pols Direct Money to Powerful Friends

Published August 4, 2008

Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar (DFL) marked the August 1 anniversary of the fatal collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis by pushing for higher motor fuel taxes to fix the nation’s bridges.

The congressman ignores an important fact: Lawmakers had plenty of time and money to fix the bridge but chose to focus on other things. The same can be said for thousands of bridges across the country that get neglected while members of Congress and state lawmakers spend road and bridge funds elsewhere.

After 17 consecutive years of reports describing the I-35W bridge as in “serious to poor” condition by the National Bridge Inventory Standards, Minnesota lawmakers in 2007 passed a budget that included hundreds of millions of dollars of construction money for private companies, but not for the bridge. A few months later, the bridge collapsed.

One earmark alone sent more than $200 million to an expansion of the privately owned and operated Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Lawmakers directed millions more dollars to an expansion of the privately owned and operated Thomson-West publishing company.

Perhaps if legislators had been sending meaningful amounts of taxpayer money to the taxpayer-owned and -operated bridge instead of to private businesses, the bridge would not have fallen into the river. Another factor, cited in a report commissioned by state lawmakers and released this May, took the state’s department of transportation to task for a lousy job of inspection and maintenance.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) rightly vetoed the Mall of America and Thomson-West subsidies. But vetoing outrageous government handouts to private, profit-making businesses does not get money where it belongs. Vetoes only stop the money from going where it does not belong.

That’s important too, however, because plenty of “highway and bridge” money goes where it shouldn’t, getting spent on everything from public education and museums to graffiti removal and parking garages. In a November 2006 article in Tax Notes, economist Jonathan Williams wrote, “Some experts estimate that total diversions of gasoline tax dollars away from legitimate general road use equal nearly 40 percent of the Highway Trust Fund’s annual budget.”

That certainly takes the “trust” out of the Highway Trust Fund.

This wasted money is especially scandalous given that gasoline taxes are so high and continue rising. Even without any hike in the 18.4 cents a gallon federal tax on gasoline (24.4 cents a gallon on diesel), the tax burden has been climbing because of rising local and state taxes. As of July 1, the national average tax imposed on a gallon of gasoline was 49.4 cents a gallon, up 2.4 cents from the first quarter of the year. For diesel fuel, the national average amount of tax was 56.4 cents a gallon, up 2.8 cents from the first quarter, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Tax burdens vary widely and are surging in states that charge sales tax or some other tax based on a percentage of the price of gasoline. In California, Connecticut, and Illinois, per-gallon gasoline taxes are 74.9 cents (a 17 percent increase since January), 70.8 cents, and 66.6 cents, respectively, the highest in the country. Minnesota comes in at 27th place with a tax burden of 42.4 cents a gallon, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Alaska is lowest at 26.4 cents a gallon.

These taxes take a big bite out of motorists’ wallets. Before state or federal lawmakers raise gasoline (and diesel) taxes, they owe it to us to ensure every dollar of the money gets spent on the roads and bridges these taxes are supposed to fund.

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago.