Yesterday we used the Old Economy Project that Refuses to Die (also known as the Stillwater Bridge) to explain how we continue to build new or expand existing infrastructure even when we don't have the money to maintain what we already built. On our off day (we normally publish on Monday, Wednesday and Friday), I want to lay out one scenario for what could be done if our system of financing transportation reflected different values. I'm not advocating for the following, but put it out there as another alternative for people to think through.
Instead of spending $670+ million on the Stillwater bridge, let's go ahead and instead fix all 1,149 deficient bridges we now have in the state. This will put a lot of people to work, if that is your reason for spending the money (I suspect that is Governor Dayton's reason). If not, it is still a prudent, sensible thing for a Minnesotan to do.
With the $170 million we have left over, let's go ahead and give each family in Stillwater $12,000 in compensation. I don't think they deserve this, but I also don't think we should spend $93,000 per family building the bridge as the current consensus would suggest we should. The $12k would be in acknowldgement that they are going to have to live with some congestion because we can't afford to build them out of it.
If they wish, they can use that money as a down payment on their own bridge. If they feel so strongly about the bridge and its ability to create wealth for them and their surrounding environs, they can then charge themselves a toll to make up the difference. Maybe I'm wrong and this is a great investment. If so, great for Stillwater. Perhaps they can even turn a profit.
More likely, they will pocket the money based on the knowledge that the inconvenience of their situation is (a) largely self-created, (b) a consequence of the lifestyle choice they made when they chose to live in Stillwater and (c) not worth $12,000 per family, let alone the $93,000 per family they want all of us to spend.
If we did all of that -- fixed our existing bridges and compensated Stillwater residents -- remarkably we would still have $85 million left over. Think about that for a minute. We fix all 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in the state, we provide some healthy compensation for inconvienced Stillwater residents and we still would have spent $85 million less than we are planning to spend building a new, low-volume bridge across the St.Croix River.
Yet we're going to build the new bridge.
How delusional do a people need to be to make a choice like this? How shallow is our political leadership to uniformly embrace such folly? How scared are the professionals at the Department of Transportation that there is no alternative, professional voice speaking out? How messed up are the systems that would allow such a thing to happen? In a state where we had a bridge fall down and 13 people died, it is an apostacy that our policies continue to reflect outdated values.
We're better than this. And if we're not, we need to be. And if we can't be, we don't deserve the legacy that our ancestors left us. It's that simple.
Our focus today needs to be on building Strong Towns, not taking on projects that only dig our financial hole deeper.