He just kicked over their tombstones.
In the aftermath of the I-35W collapse, our war-in-Iraq-distracted president visited the wreckage in the Mississippi River. Some remains of victims still missing were practically under his feet. This tragic industry obituary still smelled of fresh ink, and all George W. Bush did was light a candle and make a quick right out of the funeral procession. A couple of months later, the names of the lives lost seem furthest from his mind.
Strangely enough, the man acts like a well-oiled professional when it comes to orchestrating death marches for infrastructure funding. Spending bills can be months from passing and he is already cracking open what now is a battered guidebook titled How to Veto the Highway and Bridge Industry. The protocol works without pause: Thumbing the pages once again, he issues a rejection warning, those on Capitol Hill cower and millions of dollars are led to an escape hatch.
The flowers were already ordered for this funeral. Despite rousing support of a FY 2008 highway spending bill worth more than $40 billion from the House of Representatives and Senate, the vital signs of this piece of legislation were weakening on the White House lawn. Bush called his veto shot back in July, then came the collapse on Aug. 1. I really thought the sight of a bridge system on life support firsthand would have generated a call for the financial crash cart, but apparently our president’s bedside manner comes equipped with a turn of the other cheek. Unless the Senate gangs up on the veto, highway spending will likely face the budgetary axe. Chances are the American public will not hear a peep of the kill.
Congressmen have tried to send their condolences. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) announced his national bridge repair plan just days after the disaster, but the move relies on an increase in the national gas tax, which will never happen under the current administration. The tactic also has been proven to hold no promise. Gas tax receipts have been on the decline for a few years now, making Oberstar’s proposed bonus bogus. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) rolled out their legislation authorizing the issuance of $50 billion in “Build America Bonds” over the next six years to finance roads, rail, bridge, water and other critical infrastructure projects. The move holds promise, but the ones who hold the fate of the bill continue to lag in underachievement.
Once again, it looks like the states must learn how to tie their own bags of loot if infrastructure is expected to improve. The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) appears to have a plan that will never knot. Lawmakers approved a heavy-blanket bridge repair plan, one that will award a single 30-year contract to fix and maintain 802 of its worst bridges. The plan would require the winning contractor to fix or replace all 802 spans within five years. The state would start paying the builder only after all the repairs were completed, and the contractor would have to maintain the bridges in satisfactory condition for the next 25 years. MoDOT estimates construction costs could be as high as $600 million.
MoDOT currently has two teams vying for this gig, which should be well under way by 2008.
Many other states will be watching from the bleachers and hopefully will be dreaming about one day playing this game. It is exactly the kind of fantasizing this industry needs, because the motoring public certainly deserves more than a death wish.