Infrastructure funding: abridged too far


Reactions to terrible events that should not happen — events such as the collapse of the Hwy. I35W bridge in Minneapolis — follow a pattern.

First there is shock, and very quickly thereafter there comes a desire to help, to comfort, to care for the afflicted.

Some people immediately want to know why the thing happened, who’s responsible, and what needs to be done to see that such a thing doesn’t happen again, but most need time for mourning and helping before addressing those questions.

In the case of our latest horror there is, for now, a Greek chorus chanting about how we must not talk about blame, nor outcomes; we must simply honor the losses of those who were directly affected by the terrible event.

It’s not difficult to understand such feelings, particularly in Minnesota, where people do tend to rush to the aid of others in times of emergency. But politics is in it, has to be in it, because it is the political and social views of a powerful minority in our society that got us into the mess we’re in now with a rapidly failing infrastructure.

Here’s what we’re almost sure to see when the talk has died down and the network and cable news crews have gone back east:

First, not too far down the road, the White House and its sycophants in Congress will begin a push to “privatize” more of our infrastructure. The argument, bolstered by millions of dollars worth of propaganda provided by industry, will be that government simply can’t afford to maintain public highways and major bridges at a safe and efficient level. Our collapsed bridge will be cited as proof of that claim.

Therefore – ahem – we should sell those bridges and roads and suchlike burdens at very low prices to corporations that are courageously offering to take them off our hands and run them as toll roads and bridges.

The propaganda will not mention that the tolls, in providing enormous profits for the corporations, will cost us far more, in perpetuity, than would the taxes to bring our infrastructure up to acceptable levels.

Second, dead certain, outcome:

Both the Republicans in Washington and Minnesota’s neocon governor, his department heads and the right wing extremists who still hold many seats in our state legislature, will block every move to start repairing our crumbling infrastructure that doesn’t include “practical measures” to “keep spending within reasonable limits.”

What that means, bluntly, is further cuts to virtually every state service that aids the poor, children, elderly citizens, anyone who now relies on state aid for survival at some level.

It also means further cuts in funding for education at all levels – a favorite target of those right wingers through the years they controlled the legislature – and for aid to cities. If the right wins this battle, the burden of paying for such already tragically sagging services as police and fire departments will be shifted further to property taxes and away from income taxes, which have been cut substantially for the state’s richest residents.

They have a good chance of winning, given the usual weak-willed, feeble responses of Democrats to such attacks on the public good.

As widely reported in the past week, almost 600,000 road bridges in the United States are classified as “deficient” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. (As the coverage of the Minneapolis mess dies down, we’ll start to be told, over and over, that “deficient” really doesn’t mean dangerous until a bridge actually falls down.)

Not so widely reported, but still out there, is the fact that one-third of our country’s dams are rated as “hazardous.” There also have been numerous reports on the disastrous state of our air traffic control system – overworked and undertrained controllers, grossly outdated computer systems and more.

Our president, our mad vice president, the right wing nutters in Congress, and the anti-tax right are responsible for all of these messes, just as surely at they are responsible for the horrors in Iraq.

Our governor and his sponsors, the Minnesota Taxpayers League, and their servants in the legislature are responsible for all sorts of human pain because of their program cuts. We have fewer cops on city streets because of them, more kids are going without medical care because of them, more young people are unable to afford college because of them, and so much more.

At the moment, talking about the bridge, they’re singing a different dirge, but it’s an act. Any course changing they’re doing is only minor, and temporary.

Carol Molnau, Pawlenty’s lieutenant governor, was quoted by the Strib as saying, “We put together a system in this state that addresses the needs that we have within the fiscal restraints we have, as well.”

Many of those “fiscal restraints” exist only because of Republican cuts in taxes paid by the rich, and because Pawlenty and the rest of the Republican crew have squeezed spending on infrastructure until there is no juice left.

Conclusion: The right wingers in the legislature will stall, obfuscate, dig in and refuse to adequately fund even bridge repair, let alone other badly needed infrastructure fixes, unless the Democrats cave in and agree to take the money from the usual places: education, food programs, health care programs and the like.

More likely fallout from the bridge

There are more likely consequences of the Hwy. I35W bridge collapse than those that occurred to me and about which I wrote in the essay immediately above.

The far right is out to milk every possible political gain from that terrible event and the death and pain it brought. They’re doing it even as their loyal and unthinking subjects flood newspapers with letters attacking those who “play the blame game,” and “seek political gain at a time when we should be coming together.”

Frank Hornstein, my able state representative, read the piece below and politely thanked me for my analysis. He also pointed out something that I had missed: Both George Bush and Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been yammering since the bridge fell about “streamlining the regulatory process” and “cutting red tape” to get a replacement bridge built.

What that means in Neoconspeak, Hornstein noted, is “throwing out very important labor and environmental regulations, as well as promoting privatization.”

Like me, Hornstein also is concerned that the upcoming special session of the Minnesota Legislature will see another Republican right attack on public transit based on the false claim that we can’t afford both transit and safe roads and bridges.

He is right on all counts.

What we need, Hornstein said in his note, is “a mass mobilization to demand that transit investments be part of any comprehensive transportation package.”

In other words, friends, take a few minutes here and there to telephone, write, email your state representatives and senators – and your members of Congress, for that matter – and make them understand that we demand transit as part of the total package. Do it now, and do it again when the Legislature is in special session.