Government is Responsible for the Sorry State of our Roads and Bridges

Steel girders crashing down on commuters crossing the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge; drivers killed in Minneapolis as an overwater link on a major interstate highway collapsed underneath them; hundreds of people drowned in New Orleans as levees supposedly designed to protect the city from catastrophic flooding were overwhelmed by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

There is an evident pattern here – and it can be traced directly to federal, state and local government’s failure to devote both its attention and taxpayers’ money to the mundane and largely invisible job of maintaining the nation’s infrastructure as opposed to “investing” it in more politically rewarding economic development projects.

“We never talked about levees”, as one member of New Orleans’s Levee Board later admitted. Predictably more responsive to the parochial interests of developers, realtors, financial institutions and other local special-interest groups, Louisiana’s levee district boards deliberately expanded their bureaucratic fiefdoms far beyond their original mandates. Over time, using its powers of eminent domain for flood-control projects, the governing board of New Orleans’s Levee District became the largest landlord at Lake Pontchartrain. It built two marinas there, constructed parks, walking paths and other amenities along the lakefront and, in order to spur development at the sites it helped finance, built roads, a commuter airport, and a dock leased to the Belle of Orleans, a floating casino, in return for a cut of the expected gaming revenue. New Orleans’s district board also considered, but ultimately abandoned, a plan to lay fiber-optic cable along 26 miles of the city’s levee system. The humdrum job of flood-control maintenance took a backseat to more newsworthy lakefront development initiatives.

As a result of that neglect, sections of the levee along the Industrial Canal, where a major breach occurred, was built around a steel floodwall that had no horizontal footing, was surrounded by protective pilings that may not have been driven deeply enough to provide stability, was compromised further by seepage underneath its base, and consequently was simply pushed aside by Katrina’s storm surge, creating an opening so large that a river barge was swept through it.

Bureaucrats in California’s Bay Area, Minneapolis, New Orleans and elsewhere can afford to roll the dice on your behalf – and evade responsibility for the ensuing failure of roads, bridges and dams – because they likely will have left public office before people are injured or killed as a result of their bypassing of needed repairs.

The nation’s infrastructure is deteriorating, but one should be cautious in supporting the spending of economic “stimulus” money to mend it. Tax revenue will by and large be earmarked for financing much more visible “shovel-ready” projects. Politicians garner a greater electoral payoff from financing new construction projects than from fixing potholes or the supports of aging bridges. Further headlines of bureaucratic death and destruction surely will follow.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by William Shughart | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst