Yes, it is election season and soon we will again confirm that we, the electorate, strongly dislike pork spending, earmarks and pandering in every congressional district other than our own. Our representatives understand us and work tirelessly to get money for projects we need. Our projects are different than all those others.
You may appreciate the mild sarcasm in a blog like this, but be honest with yourself – think of the projects your representatives have secured funding for and truly ask yourself how many of those you opposed as pork-barrel spending. At best, we often tell ourselves that we deserve our share since everyone else is getting theirs. At worst, we applaud spending our in districts and don’t stop to ponder the larger ramifications.
This brings us to our new local bridge. Let me preface this by saying that a) I am a huge supporter of trails as I believe they help communities economically and socially at relatively little investment, and b) I am a supporter of doing government projects “right”, meaning, civic structures should be landmarks and not simply the lowest bid alternative.
The City of Baxter, Minnesota (my home town) just opened a new bridge over Excelsior Drive connecting the trailhead of the Paul Bunyan Trail. It is a beautiful structure and I believe it will be a great benefit to the entire area.
The bridge cost $1.5 million. It opened during election season (good timing) and amidst the economic crisis and unprecedented bailout (poor timing). Congressman James Oberstar, chair of the Transportation Committee in the US House of Representatives is famous for delivering on this type of project and was at the scene, along with other dignitaries, to share the congratulations.
The criticisms that we have heard about this project are generally along the line of – why are we wasting this much money on trails when we have roads and other infrastructure that need to be fixed. Those criticisms don’t miss the target....they are shooting at the wrong target entirely.
This is a great project. It is a landmark project that will benefit an entire region. It fits a specific need that is proportionate to the demand on the system. The project would never have been done, and could not have been justified in any form, with local dollars. It is part of a larger regional project and, most importantly, it will cost little for the local taxpayer to maintain over the long run. I like this project.
The projects I don’t like, the ones many clamber for,are the short-term infrastructure projects that, over the long run, provide the wrong incentives for growth, mask the true costs of growth and saddles small towns with unsustainable maintenance costs over the long run. These projects are always well-received and yet, more often than not, ultimately weaken a local economy.
Let me give one concrete example to demonstrate what we see happening time and time again. The city of Remer is a wonderful place full of really good people (about 350 of them). About thirty years ago, they received a huge water and wastewater system compliments of the federal government. Then about ten years ago, when Remer was unable to afford to maintain the original systemand the inefficient development pattern it induced, and the wastewater system had gotten to the point where a major environmental problem was imminent, the federal government stepped in again and paid to double the size of the system and hook up more users (again, in a most inefficient pattern of development). Double down.
Today, the good people of Remer are so economically strapped maintaining infrastructure (mostly unused) that their city canaccomplish little else. The system has brought them little in terms of economic gain, but lots in terms of long-term liabilities.
In the future, the federal government (or someone) will need to come in and economically bail out Remer again, or face an environmental catastrophe. This cycle – subsidize growth, induce poor development decisions, subsidize growth some more – has played itself out in small communities across the country.
With demographics changing and cities/suburbs gaining in population while rural areas do not, the next census is likely to shift power even further away from small towns. How many more subsidies will there be for the Remers of the world when that happens? How much money will urban and suburban legislators be willing to shift to small towns while the infrastructure in their own districts (not as inefficient and much more highly used) is so badly in need of repair?
The bridge in Baxter was a good project. It brings benefit to a region, creates a landmark and is economically sustainable. It does not induce poor development patterns or facilitate inefficient use of resources. How many times can you actually say that about a pork-project?