October 18th, 2010
The No. 13 Line
Gridlock Sam: The Tea Party’s Bridge to Beyond Nowhere

It’s so easy to get on the bandwagon: lower my taxes, smaller and more efficient government, don’t touch my liberties, throw the bums out, etc. But what if that bandwagon has to cross a bridge? And what if that bridge hasn’t been maintained in years?

The Tea Party has captured the imagination and spirit of many Americans and may very well turn that into a powerful voting bloc come November. But, that bloc may not have a leg or girder to stand on as our nation’s infrastructure continues to crumble. I am very concerned, from what I have read so far, and what has been ignored to date, that the Tea Party movement will throw our public works overboard with the tea.

The Tea Party stands for smaller government. I’m not going to argue with that. There are things that the government can’t repair all by itself. We can argue about laissez faire vs. public intervention when it comes to poverty or jobs. But, there isn’t much arguing that not painting a bridge leads to corrosion. Or that 100-year-old water mains need attention to protect them from leaks or worse – collapses. Infrastructure is not going to repair itself without government leadership and intervention (which to date has gotten only a D from the American Society of Civil Engineers). And the responsibility is on all politicians regardless of party affiliation. A broken bridge isn’t going to distinguish between a Democrat, Republican or Tea Party candidate driving by when it crumbles. As Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, was quoted recently in the New York Times: “The infrastructure needs are real. We can argue about how to pay for it.”

A fiscal conservative must look at the short and long-term costs. Study after study, including Fragile Foundations commissioned by President Ronald Reagan’s National Council on Public Works Improvement, found that deferring maintenance led to much higher costs down the road (if there were a road left). It’s like your car: if you don’t get the oil changed regularly, the bearings will eventually seize and the engine will fail, forcing you to buy a new car – a much pricier option that could have been avoided. Similarly, allowing a bridge to corrode to a danger point and then building a new bridge is the far more expensive route. I’m worried that discussions about transportation issues are essentially absent from the Tea Party rhetoric. There is a startling lack of specific solutions. As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman recently wrote, the Tea Party movement is “…all steam and no engine. It has no plan to restore America to greatness.” Tea Party candidates like to speak in one-liners, outdoing opponents with promises reminiscent of “no new taxes” on their lips. That could be dangerous if they win and voters hold their feet to the fire.

Public works industries and all concerned citizens need to start engaging Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senate nominee, Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Senate nominee, and Tea Party cheerleader and GOP darling Sarah Palin. We need to start a conversation with the Party about the critical importance infrastructure plays in our nation’s economic future, and how important funding is. Why? Because if elected, Tea Party candidates will influence the actions of the next Congress, which will most likely take up the long overdue reauthorization of the multi-year surface transportation law. The law, known as the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETY-LU), is the current authorization of federal transportation policy that expired in 2009. Congress has been dragging its feet on the bill. Looking for ways to fund the measure, Democrat Rep. James Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has wisely proposed an increase in the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. Maybe he should stop calling it a tax right now, and start calling it a user fee, because Tea Partiers would not vote for a hundredth of a penny increase in the gas tax. We have to get them over the idea that no tax is a good tax, or tweak the semantics.

When it comes to our nation’s transportation infrastructure, we are in deep trouble. In his new book, Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, author Barry B. LePatner makes a compelling case for funding to fix our roads and bridges that every candidate should read. He examined the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis in August 2007, which killed 13 people and injured 145 others, showing us that the tragedy could have been prevented. He also warned that it could happen again at thousands of bridges across the country, with more than 50 percent of our bridges past their intended lifespan. In a recent conversation, LePatner posed a question for Tea Party candidates, turning an issue too often seen as one about bricks and mortar into a question about life and death. He asked, “If I tell you that your children, your grandchildren, and your nieces and nephews are going over bridges that are `structurally deficient’ and `fracture-critical,’ which any engineer will say can go down at any minute, does that mean anyone can tell you you’re safe? Absolutely not. Are you telling me you don’t care because you are trying to shrink the budget?”

If the Tea Party wants smaller government, they may turn to corporate America to pay for our roads, bridges and rails. The concept of privatizing transportation infrastructure was recently touted by Clifford Winston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He wrote that privatizing infrastructure would “help cut the federal deficit by raising revenues and reducing expenditures.” But the government should be wary of taking this route, or it could wind up like the driver who blindly follows his GPS onto a recently closed bridge and ends up in deep water. As my friend Joe Giglio, a Professor at Northeastern University, who has written extensively about transportation issues, and served as the chair of Reagan’s National Council on Public Works Improvement, puts it, “Privatization is as American as handguns or bourbon and branch water.” But don’t be fooled, he adds. The big argument for public-private partnerships is that private corporations have “skin in the game,” while in fact many companies are as shortsighted about revenue as the politicians are. “What is a CEO concerned with? Long-term profitability or short-term?” Dr. Giglio asks. Too often, it’s the latter goal, and that’s not good for the public when we’re talking about transportation infrastructure that’s supposed to last lifetimes. That’s not to say there aren’t times when privatization won’t work. When it comes to projects involving new technology and financial risk, let the private sector do it, Dr. Giglio said. But we must be careful about selling off our highways and roads, lest willy-nilly tolling schemes lead to unintended traffic congestion. If Americans are grumbling now about a 5 cent/gallon gas tax increase, just wait until privately managed companies start charging market rates for using roads. The year 2010 will be known as “the good old days.”

If we can’t appeal to the Tea Party’s good sense, then perhaps we could try appealing to their sense of history. This is a party, after all, whose main reference point is the Boston Tea Party. Craig Ruyle, an engineer at NYS Department of Transportation who is a history buff, points out that the conservative parties actually have a history of supporting funds for transportation infrastructure. In the pre-Civil war era, he notes, it was the Democrats who were against anything they considered “internal improvements” like building railroads and canals, claiming it was unconstitutional. It was the Whigs who pushed to invest in transportation. Why? It was all about commerce. Merchants had to move goods and prosperous commerce was vitally important for the country’s future. President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, authorized the Transcontinental Railroad. And don’t forget, a century later, it was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower who fathered the Interstate Highway System. Fellow GOP President Ronald Reagan later imposed a five-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike for the Highway Trust Fund.

The Tea Party candidates have adopted the historic “Don’t Tread on Me,” Gadsden flag for their cause, a bright yellow flag with the coiled timber rattlesnake poised for attack. But let’s remember that this flag has been known as a symbol of patriotism as well as conflict with government. Hopefully we can harness the Tea Party’s patriotism without losing support for those things that make this country so great, including a world-class transportation system.

Samuel I. Schwartz is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner who currently writes the Gridlock Sam column for the New York Daily News and is CEO of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

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