The ridiculous Old Economy project that won't die

Whether you were in the majority of American voters that in 2008 opted for "change you can believe in" or are part of the majority of American voters that in 2010 opted to "change" that change, you likely have a deep-seeded frustration with the seemingly unstoppable inertia of the status quo. Our economy is trying to change, to transform itself, yet we cling to a fantasy that American Economy V.2005 was not only "real", but that it can be brought back from the dead with just the right bit of prodding.

No project I am aware of encapsulates this Old Economy way of thinking more than the Minnesota/Wisconsin St. Croix River Bridge. We have written about this project before (Victory on the St. Croix, but over what?, March 10, 2010) and the bizarre politics surrounding it (Michelle Bachmann and the St. Croix Bridge, March 18, 2010).

With America clearly in the throes of pending austerity, with Mn/DOT's budget bleeding red ink as far as the eye can see, with Americans extremely wary of continued deficit spending and clearly expressing that at the ballot box, with a Presidential Deficit Commission recommending major changes in how we do business (and catastrophe if we do not make some tough choices), and now - and this is unbelievable if you ponder it for a while -- we have the head of the FDIC writing this past week that the next debt crisis will be in the United States (see Ireland), I assumed this project was dead.

When the National Park Service gave all the politicians "cover" to back out of this ridiculous project by ruling that it violated the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, I assumed the project was dead.

Silly me. Until our economy implodes under the sheer weight of its own insanity, no Old Economy project will ever die.

In the latest effort to keep hope alive for bridge supporters, a "formidable" lobbying organization called the St. Croix Bridge Coalition is headed to Washington D.C. to make their case. They are seeking two things; an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers provisions and $668 million.

For those unfamiliar with the project, here is a quick synopsis: The Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan Area has expanded horizontally for decades in the Ponzi-scheme fashion we have thoroughly discussed here at Strong Towns. This has pushed new development across the St. Croix river and into Wisconsin, where not only is the eastern shoreline being developed but some nice, affordable country estate lots are available for people who don't mind the commute in from the far exurbs.

As more people have exercised their right to live in an area far removed from where they work, congestion has increased, especially through a schizophrenic, but beautiful, little town called Stillwater, which has both embraced hyper-growth and shunned it, depending on the day of the week. The ante to transfer congestion someplace else and keep the Ponzi-scheme rolling by opening up more land for development across the river is $668 million. Of course, all of the proposals have this project being paid for by someone other than those that directly benefit. The general taxpayer, or more precisely, future generations of taxpayers since it is all borrowed money, will pay for this project through state and federal government contributions.

Those that read our series on the Staples overpass and TIGER II will not be surprised to learn that the St. Croix Bridge Project comes complete with fraudulent benefit/cost analysis, this time showing that the "benefits" exceed the project costs by six times. While the cost is truly in dollars paid by us, the "benefits" are quality-of-life and accrue to people who choose the lifestyle of living near Stillwater or in Western Wisconsin. A full 85% of the "benefit" (an estimated $758.1 million worth) is time these people will save in their travels while another 10% (estimated at $90.3 million) is in a theoretical reduction in the distance they have to travel.

The coalition seems hopeful it will find salvation in a new anti-environmental, pro-roads group of legislators personified by local representative, and Tea Party favorite, Michelle Bachmann. Acting the part of a political contortionist, Bachmann recently indicated that earmarks for transportation projects in one's district are not really earmarks. I guess it depends on what the definition of "is" is.

Bachmann told the Star Tribune she supports a “redefinition” of what an earmark is, because, she said: “Advocating for transportation projects for ones district in my mind does not equate to an earmark.”

“I don’t believe that building roads and bridges and interchanges should be considered an earmark,” Bachmann said.

While we've vigorously indicated here at Strong Towns that we are a non-partisan organization (and we are), I've not hid the fact that I am a strong fiscal conservative who has never voted for a Democrat in my life. We have others here equally committed to the other side of the political equation, but I'm writing this particular piece and refer to my politics only to properly frame my outrage.

The St. Croix River Bridge project would be a ridiculous project if we were a rich country. We're not. Spending such obscene amounts to subsidize the lifestyle of a small percentage of commuters and enrich an even smaller handful of potential property owners and developers is morally bankrupt. Doing it on borrowed money when we have immense, unfunded maintenance obligations on infrastructure we've already built is a travesty.

Are we insane? We're swimming in debt, an unfathomable wave of financial obligations is sweeping over us, we have limited prospects for growth and all of the signs of an empire in decline. What kind of a people even ponder funding such an outrageous project under these circumstances?

Dan Hoxworth wrote an opinion piece last summer in which he compared the reconstruction of the 35W bridge, which collapsed in 2007 killing 13 people, and the St. Croix bridge. It is a great piece, which included this quote:

No one would question the importance of reconstructing the I-35W bridge, with its 140,000 vehicles crossings daily, at a price of $234 million. But $668 million to accommodate 3,000 more crossings daily [above current usage on the Stillwater bridge]? Is that a wise expenditure of tax dollars?

We're stuck in an Old Economy model that places immense value on saving small increments of commuting time. This was counterproductive when we were employing scores of people building tons of houses on the periphery of major metropolitan areas. Now that we are no longer building in that model, clinging to these same values is crazy. It wasn't real then. We can't wish it -- or spend it -- into reality now.

If we truly want change as Americans, we need to look in the mirror. We can't oppose projects in someone else's district and support those in ours. We can't campaign against debt and then borrow to enrich our own position. We need to demand, before we spend any more money on propping up this system, that there be a real financial analysis done that addresses the true financial return of every project.

The time has come to start building an America full of Strong Towns.


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