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Obama's stimulus money will increase traffic, but not bridge safety 

Wednesday, Sep 16 2009

For the thousands of drivers forging across the Bay Bridge at 6:30 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 8, was the day government got it right. Inspectors noticed a cracked strut amid a gargantuan retrofit project over Labor Day weekend. Round-the-clock workers did their magic. And California's oft-maligned government proved that it isn't so incompetent after all.

If only. Notwithstanding the Bay Bridge miracle, the subject of bridge repair is one that actually illustrates just how dysfunctional government has become.

According to federal data, around one-quarter of the spans in California have been deemed by inspectors to be "structurally deficient," meaning they are eligible for replacement. In San Francisco, reports show dozens of spans with low National Bridge Inventory safety inspection scores similar to the bridge that two years ago sent drivers in Minnesota plunging into the Mississippi River.

When President Barack Obama proposed his stimulus package earlier this year, he suggested that some of the economic recovery money could be used to rebuild what he said were America's crumbling bridges. But some worn-out bridges in San Francisco will have to wait for repairs, despite $887 million in federal stimulus dollars administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

A search of a database of information in the National Bridge Inventory turns up nearly 150 spans in San Francisco. Of those, 49 are listed as structurally deficient, a term that means a span is safe for traffic, yet in need of repair. At press time, a Caltrans spokeswoman was unable to prepare a list of bridges still awaiting repairs. But she identified the 38-meter bridge — built in 1936 — that carries 19th Avenue over John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park as one among those for which there are no immediate plans for repair work.

The reasons for the unwise transportation spending are multifold, but they all trace back to the kind of governmental dysfunction that, for a brief moment on the morning of Sept. 8, seemed to have been dispelled by industrious workers on the Bay Bridge.

To explain why our structurally insufficient bridges may have to wait for replacement or repair, it's useful to begin with some realities that might have been overlooked during the distracting economic panic and political euphoria when the stimulus was patched together earlier this year. The administration emphasized the funding of so-called shovel-ready projects that could begin right away.

Just because a term is pithy doesn't mean it's a good blueprint for a massive civil engineering program. Shovel-ready in the Bay Area has meant steering $145 million in Obama stimulus money toward the kind of ordinary road maintenance that should be conducted with ordinary government income, not with borrowed money. Imagine a household taking out a loan to mow the grass each week.

"This whole shovel-ready thing has been frustrating for a lot of us," MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said. "The Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge, built in a time of economic downturn, weren't shovel-ready. If we are going to borrow money from our children — which, with the stimulus, we are — we should make investments that last."

In another miscalculation, much of the stimulus money, including the part directed toward transportation infrastructure, has been routed through state governments. The president and Congress seem to have been blithe about the fact that, during the past few decades, state governments such as California's have lost sight of the common good.

In February, Democrats in the state legislature were forced to prostrate themselves before a single man, Senator Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria), to get a budget passed. This meant forgoing a 12-cent gasoline tax, despite the fact that the tax hasn't been raised since 1989 and that the money largely goes toward fixing roads and bridges. Budget negotiators said a portion of the $1.6 billion in forgone gas tax money would be replaced by money from the stimulus. The overall state budget shortfall now means borrowed stimulus money will help pay for scheduled road maintenance.

From a policy standpoint, this is outrageous. Economists disagree on many things, but not on the wisdom of raising the gas tax. "Given all the problems associated with gasoline consumption — congestion, global warming, national security, pollution, damage to roads — a sufficient tax on this activity is the most efficient way to cause people to take these costs into account," said Alan Auerbach, UC Berkeley professor of economics and law and director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance.

Rentschler has watched for years as inflation-adjusted gas tax income declined, while mid-20th-century infrastructure projects decayed. "The gas tax has not been raised in the state of California since the voters last acted in June 1990, almost 20 years ago," he said. "In that time, inflation has eroded the tax by near a third. We get what we pay for, and that means for us in the year 2009, we get potholes, congestion, poor transit service, and higher vehicle repair bills due to the poor conditions of our roads."

Thanks to the perverse accommodation of Maldonado, the stimulus has encouraged Californians to remain addicted to cheap gasoline, and use it to power their vehicles over bridges that will continue to decay because gasoline is so cheap.

"We have a shortage of money because the gas tax hasn't been raised," state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said. "And we are unable to raise a tax legislatively because every one of my Republican colleagues has signed a pledge ... that they will never, ever vote for a tax. Not just San Francisco, but the entire state of California is on borrowed time. I hate to think that a bridge has to fail, and people have to be injured, before my Republican colleagues wake up and recognize the damage they're doing to this state."

The final pillar of dysfunction behind the decaying bridge problem is an unquenchable fetish local leaders still have for the 1960s dream that says that if only we create higher-capacity freeways, we will all get where we want to go. Almost $200 million of the Bay Area's stimulus money is being used as a loan for the up-front financing of a fourth bore to the Caldecott Tunnel, which will later be repaid with state bond money.

It may seem intuitively obvious that adding a freeway tunnel would allow traffic to flow freely, thus improving commuters' quality of life. But studies of Bay Area road construction have repeatedly shown that freeway lanes clog back up not long after they're built. Widened freeways motivate once-discouraged drivers to make what they expect will be swifter trips — and such journeys are quicker, for a while, until hundreds of thousands of other drivers get the same idea. Once completed, the tunnel will have an effect similar to low gas prices: It will help dump millions of additional car trips onto existing Bay Area streets, roads, and, yes, worn-out bridges.The stimulus money being spent by the MTC does include a full-on bridge replacement job, the Doyle Drive project, in which a viaduct connecting the Marina neighborhood to the Golden Gate Bridge will be torn down in favor of a new viaduct and tunnel. The old span was decrepit, and in indisputable need of replacement. A guaranteed amount of $50 million — and perhaps as much as $50 million more — in stimulus money is slated to go toward the estimated $1 billion cost of the project. But the replacement of Doyle Drive, like the Caldecott Tunnel fourth bore, is saddled with outdated 1960s design philosophies that might ultimately detract from San Franciscans' safety.

Caltrans, which implements state highway standards, has long held the idea that a safe freeway is one where half-alert drivers can travel 65 miles per hour without crashing. To this end, the Doyle Drive project, which is replacing an 1930s-era elevated roadway, adds 14 feet of shoulder on either side and a new 20-foot-wide median strip where there wasn't one. This will bring the road up to Caltrans' basic standards. But the question arises of whether it's wise to lull drivers into believing they're racing on an Orange County–style high-speed freeway just as they're about to be dumped onto Marina surface streets.

Wouldn't it be better to spend that freeway-widening money securing other Bay Area bridges? The new design involves tunneling under the Presidio National Park, making that extra width expensive. "I'd give odds they could pull $350 million out of that project and have a perfectly seismically safe bridge, and fund some of those other projects," said Jerry Cauthen, a civil engineer and longtime critic of wasteful transportation spending. Such a move might show that our frequently disparaged government isn't as inept and shortsighted as it sometimes seems.

That's why it'll never happen.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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