Proposal to fix bridges by taking away safety money won’t solve the problemSeptember 26, 2011
By Sean Barry
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) got a lot of media play for joining President Obama in Kentucky last week and unveiling his own plan to prioritize bridge repair by taking away a tiny amount of funding that helps improve safety for people walking or biking and redirecting it to bridge repair. But Senator Paul’s proposal is built on a series of false premises.
If you’ve seen recent stories on aging and deficient bridges — on NBC Nightly News, Chris Matthews’ Hardball or in countless newspaper reports — you heard echoes of our report flagging the urgent need to tend to our aging bridge infrastructure.
Senator Paul proposes that we take what he pegs (erroneously) as the “10 percent” we currently set aside for “turtle tunnels and squirrel sanctuaries and all this craziness” and divert it toward an emergency fund for urgent bridge repair.
Senator Paul’s math is way off. Paul – like Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn last week and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor the week before – is grossly misstating the size of the program being attacked, the so-called “transportation enhancements” program. This program amounts to 1.5 percent of the total federal outlay for transportation, not 10 percent. Not even close.
This program, created 20 years ago, is the main source of funds to create safer conditions for those bicycling or walking — often correcting past mistakes by making dangerous roads built with federal dollars safer for everyone. While a share has gone toward other uses, such as environmental mitigation, more than half of the meager 1.5 percent is spent on making people safer.
The backlog in needed bridge repair, covered in our national report, runs to the many billions of dollars in every state. Senator Paul’s proposal would do very little to actually fix our bridges while making people less safe.
Kentucky doesn’t have more than 1,300 deficient bridges today because they spent a few million dollars making their streets safer for people walking or biking. If Senator Paul’s proposal became law and the 1.5 percent was directed into bridge repair, it would take Paul’s home state of Kentucky nearly 66 years with those funds to repair of all its bridges that are currently rated as deficient. And that doesn’t even account for the bridges that would be added to the “deficient” list in the years to come. (Kentucky has more than 4,500 bridges over 50 years old. That number could double by 2030.)
Clearly, we need far more money to repair our bridges, but we lack policies that hold states accountable for fixing their bridges. The current federal program has money dedicated for bridge repair, but allows states to divert up to half of that funding to build other more politically-driven projects.
There are ways to address this problem. States like Florida have put in place fiscally responsible policies to take care of what they’ve already built, balancing the need to fix bridges and build new roads. And Florida’s bridges are among the best in the country. Florida has both spent their “enhancement” funds and ensured their bridges are in good shape. Why can’t Kentucky and other states say the same?
The necessary closure of the Sherman Minton Bridge brought long overdue attention to the condition of our nation’s bridges. But there is nothing stopping state transportation officials from making priorities and dedicating resources to the bridges posing the greatest risk. Kentucky has a particularly poor record on this front. Ten percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient. Kentucky received $390 million in transportation funding under the Recovery Act but failed to seize the opportunity to invest in repairing its crumbling infrastructure, spending only 26 percent of their federal dollars on maintaining their existing infrastructure, the fourth worst ratio in the country, according to Smart Growth America.
There are praiseworthy elements of Senator Paul’s plan. Creating and maintaining a database for emergency bridge repairs is a worthy idea. But we need better accountability for states to spend money in responsible ways to repair bridges and roads. We would welcome the Senator Paul’s support for the Preservation and Renewal of Federal-Aid Highways Act, sponsored by Maryland Senator Ben Cardin. The act would require the Secretary of Transportation to establish “state of good repair” standards for highways that receive federal funding, ensuring that precious tax dollars actually go toward the most pressing needs.