The public debate on financing transportation infrastructure is mostly wrong.

Funding is hard to understand. Keeping track of local projects is enough to make your head spin and even those who follow the process can occasionally find themselves bewildered.

Here's what I mean:

Minnesota's biggest and most influential newspaper recently had a column about our aging infrastructure from someone who can be classified as genuinely smart. She concluded that Minnesota’s bridges are still out there aging. It's a provocative headline that will hit home to many Minnesotans, of whom will immediate associate with the 35W Bridge collapse.

The columnist, who understands transportation better than most, makes the argument that funding at the state level is needed or taxpayers will “pay a high price if they continue their habit of neglect.” The column criticizes the legislature for not acting and uses a particular bridge in Minneapolis as the poster child of neglect.

The example is the 10th Avenue Bridge: a four lane highway-designed bridge immediately adjacent a 10 lane bridge (this).

If the local government paid for this bridge, it'd likely be half the size with improved bikeways.

If the local government paid for this bridge, it'd likely be half the size with improved bikeways.

The 10th Avenue Bridge is a local street with a local bridge that serves local traffic.

Yet, in many cases, the general public narrative finds it necessary to criticize state legislators for not allocating money to support a project that has no state or regional significance. Herein lies the disconnect between how we think transportation financing works and how it actually works.

Different levels of government are responsible for different roadways. For example, you can pass a major Federal transportation bonding bill that will allocate money to highways, interstates and some lucky transit projects, yet none of that money will trickle to local streets or bridges. Projects are funded and signed off on by different agencies, except when they aren't. You can have local approval with Federal dollars, or Federal approval with local dollars, and a mix of about everything between. In many cases, multiple layers of government will have a say. For example; there's a street by my house that is funded partially by the State, with the help of a separate Federal grant, but managed by the County, but requires approval by the City. Everyone in this scenario has, or wants to have, a say in how the final product works.

The 10th Avenue Bridge is owned and operated by the local government. While the city may apply for various grants, no State funding stream is guaranteed. So, why criticize the State for something a local government ought to be handling?

Two bridges side by side. 35W (left) and 10th Avenue (right). Regional and Local Traffic.

Two bridges side by side. 35W (left) and 10th Avenue (right). Regional and Local Traffic.

Minneapolis claims it cannot afford the bridge. This is a true statement. But, why can’t Minneapolis afford it? It's a city that has seen a tremendous uptick urban growth and tax revenue after all.

The city can’t afford the bridge because it doesn’t want to. Plus, why pay 100 percent of the cost when there is a good chance someone else will. This dilemma leads to delayed repair work. In a way, our local governments are saying, "If we wait just another year, we might not have to pay for it." This is reminiscent of the Chuck Marohn-ism of eating lobster. It goes something like, “I love lobster and am willing to eat it every day if someone is willing to continually pay 75% of my bill.”

This isn't a good way to fund a transportation system.

The Federal question is even more murky.  And, it's not just the money, as Eric Jaffe puts it in City Lab,

"Money is only part of the problem. The other big sticking point is purpose. There's no longer a clear priority for national transport investment like there was during the heyday (or, rather, hey-half century) of the interstate highway program. Maintaining existing roads lacks the ribbon-cutting appeal of opening new ones."

At the Federal level, we're between a rock and a hard place. We want the money to freely flow from the Federal gas tax to fund various projects at the State level. Yet, the strings attached to that money make building good projects difficult (see: The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure). And while our one-size-fits-most funding equations have improved, it's a constant battle to make them even better. Often times, agencies are incentivized to, for lack of a better term, take the money and run.

Let's go back to the 10th Avenue bridge.

What if we asked the question, "Does Minneapolis actually need the bridge? When the other bridge was non-existent during its reconstruction in 2007-2008, travel times weren’t drastically affected. So, why would 10th Avenue be any different? I mean, take a look at this four-lane road on StreetView. Does this fit the needs of a city that's seen declines in VMT and increases in bike and pedestrian activity?

The op ed states if there is no transportation bill this year, the 10th Avenue project could grow from a $42 million repair job to a $100-million-plus replacement. I reject this claim. If we blindly rebuild 10th Avenue, then yes. But, if we look at other options, then no! Other options are available and can yield a better result.

Herein lies the other big problem. We keep getting the same stuff, even when most people acknowledge that we need something different. If we were to change how we view the bridge (think: cars to bikes), it would be time consuming; a planning process would need to be started, the public would need to comment, more engineering work would need to occur, and then more public meetings. This would take time and further postpone funding.

We can’t keep throwing money at a problem without a good feedback loop. The four lane local street/bridge combination has likely run its course, so let’s seriously re-evaluate if this is what we actually need or want. We should do this, but likely won't because we'd lose an opportunity to have someone else pay.

Funding is hard to understand. Keeping track of local projects is enough to make your head spin and even those who follow the process can occasionally find themselves bewildered. We need a more dynamic and responsive system of planning and financing transportation. This is clear. What's not clear is how things currently get done. That's how you can have a smart, researched, and widely published columnist for a major newspaper completely miss something that should be obvious.