Government & Politics

Dave Helling: Transportation bill remains a bridge too far for federal and state legislators

In early May, state engineers shut down the older of the two Missouri 291 bridges over the Missouri River and routed one lane each of northbound and southbound traffic over its more recently built companion.
In early May, state engineers shut down the older of the two Missouri 291 bridges over the Missouri River and routed one lane each of northbound and southbound traffic over its more recently built companion. The Kansas City Star

It’s been almost eight years since a heavily used highway bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more. The National Transportation Safety Board later decided a design flaw, and too much weight on the bridge, caused the catastrophe.

The tragedy focused national attention on the sorry state of America’s bridges and roads. “Crumbling infrastructure” is among the hoariest cliches in politics and journalism, yet sometimes cliches serve a purpose. Eight years after Minneapolis, many of our highways are still potholed messes. Bridges rust, because that’s what bridges do. Some roads remain far too crowded for safe or convenient travel.

Yet last week your Congress failed again to pass a comprehensive transportation spending bill, instead extending the current law for another two months. There’s disagreement over how to pay for expanded road construction — some want a federal fuel tax increase, while others prefer taxing overseas corporate profits.

Washington’s struggle to fund a long-term highway bill would be meaningless if state lawmakers had picked up the slack. But no. Missouri legislators just choked on a gas tax hike of 1.5 cents a gallon, an increase that would have provided just a little extra cash for transportation projects. Kansas will balance its budget this year by stealing $132 million from the highway fund, a move that will further delay transportation projects across the state.

Kansas is likely to raise the gasoline tax this year, perhaps by a nickel a gallon. To fix more roads? Nope. To cover the state’s spending deficit.

There are good arguments against fuel tax increases. Raising the gas tax hurts the poor, while building more roads and bridges contributes to costly sprawl and climate change. That’s why many transportation proposals include public transit components such as buses and light rail, modes that help those who can’t afford a car while potentially reducing pollution and crowded streets.

But rural interests are deeply suspicious of mass transit. Why should farmers pay more for gas, they ask, so Kansas Citians can ride the bus? That makes a transportation compromise even harder to find.

So it’s likely you’ll spend yet another summer travel season dodging cracks in the pavement.

And praying the bridge you pass over is safe. The eighth anniversary of the Minneapolis bridge collapse is Aug. 1 — the very day the temporary federal transportation bill expires.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

  Comments