EDITORIAL: Can they be so bold?

July 15, 2011

The layoffs are enough to populate a small town, and in Missouri I’ll bet even fictional destinations are being closely monitored for road and bridge repair.

That’s why MoDOT decided to lay out a line of traffic barrels in front of the entrance of 131 facilities, because it can never again return to a time when the infrastructure was put on welfare. Instead, 1,200 workers will forge ahead without a job.

In early June, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission revealed its Bolder Five-Year Direction, a plan that has savings pointing north ($521 million to be exact) and should continue to improve routes and interstates through 2015.

It wasn’t too long ago that officials at MoDOT were bold enough to simply turn their backs on the road and bridge needs of the state, a move that created a promise from future administrations that they simply cannot break. Heck, I heard it’s made out of Teflon.

Then you have the New Jersey DOT, which just 24 hours after the MoDOT weight loss was actually sizing up the prospects of privatizing some of its highway maintenance operations. The agency is in the midst of setting up a pilot program to see the effects of handing the mowing, pothole repair and snow removal off to another party.

NJDOT spokesman Joe Dee assured there would be no human sacrifice, just the shifting of bodies.

I’m guessing more state highway agencies are going to make similar announcements in the coming months. According to an Associated Press survey, five states have budget deficits that account for more than one-fifth of the state’s general operating fund, and in seven more the deficit amounts to at least 15% of expected general fund revenues. We conducted our own poll recently and when respondents were asked if the funding situation has gotten better or worse since the start of 2011, over 52% said finances were tanking. So MoDOT will most likely be coming out with an even bolder strategy once 2015 rolls around, and by then I’m almost certain the New Jersey DOT will be working on at least one or two more privatization schemes, which are developing in the U.S. like a ride on one of those supermarket kiddy rides—tons of anticipation followed by a slow uneventful journey.

We should be celebrating the efforts of both DOTs, especially when one results in over a half a billion in savings—but people should not be losing their jobs over it. And give the situation in New Jersey a little more time to play out. If the DOT does find a private player is it really going to find the time and space to relocate workers? Looking at the Garden State’s huge plot of manure in the form of debt, I would venture to guess that Dee is not going to come out of this smelling like a rose.

Now some could make the argument that this fiscal hardship might be good for state agencies, that it simply reduces some of the fat that has clogged the arteries of payroll. Perhaps there is truth to that, but it is clear to me that acts of desperation are now playing out right in our own backyard. A few fireworks went off in mine recently when Illinois politicians decided to take a pay cut to appropriate annual funds for a $31 billion infrastructure bill that was passed last year.

I was floored to learn of the sacrifice, then found myself cheering for more. If state legislators cannot figure out a way to successfully fund road and bridge needs, then why shouldn’t they be held accountable and pay the price of their own ineptitude? Yeah, I know, the town of Monowi, Neb.—and its one inhabitant—has a better chance of being upgraded to a major city before more fiscal penalties will be thrown at politicians.

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