Thursday, April 17, 2014

Up to Our Axles in the Past

How do we know it’s spring in NH? The frost heaves are settling and the potholes begin to bloom before we see the crocuses. A recent letter to the editor bemoaned the condition of East Conway Road and excoriated the governor for failing to respond, and repair. Governor Hassan may make a convenient whipping post for the issue, since she is governor (and a Democrat) but the sorry condition of our state’s infrastructure isn’t something we can blame on Maggie Hassan. It took decades of “NH doesn’t have a revenue problem/NH has a spending problem” for us to reach this point. To put it a bit more sharply, the very politicians the letter writer votes for both caused and perpetuate the condition of East Conway Road.

For decades we’ve failed, as a state to invest in both upkeep and new public construction. Our legislators were so intent on not raising any revenue, that there was none to spare. There is currently a bill calling for a study committee to examine the efficiency of the NH DOT. Apparently the fact that they don’t have enough money to work with, or a sufficient number of employees to do the work is their fault. The DOT has seen a steady 22% decrease in employees since 1992.  It’s not the governor’s fault. It’s the fault of our regressive tax system and our regressive legislature.

Since 1990, US military spending has steadily increased. There was a leveling off during the 1990’s but starting in 2000, the increase in military spending has been steep. We spend three times more on offense than we do on public construction. Roads, bridges, airports, electrical grids, schools, drinking water and waste water systems all fall into the category of public construction. Spending on these types of projects is at it’s lowest since 1995. Meanwhile our infrastructure continues to deteriorate.

The states aren’t spending the money, because (in many cases) since 2008, they’re fighting just to balance budgets. Congress isn’t making up the difference; they are intent on making sure anything with the word public attached to it is an anathema – while also making sure that nothing positive is allowed to happen during the tenure of the black guy in the White House. Here in NH, we have 145 state owned bridges on the red list for structural impairment. That’s 7% of the state owned bridges. There are 353 municipal bridges on the red list, or 21% of the municipally owned bridges.

A rural bridge collapsed in Iowa last week. It was built in the 1950’s, and a tractor and 2 ammonia tankers fell into a creek. No one was injured, and fortunately the ammonia didn’t leak. Iowa ranks third in the nation for the most structurally deficient bridges. The ranking of New England states: Rhode Island in fourth place, NH in eighth, Maine in ninth, Vermont in 24th place, Connecticut in 27th, and Massachusetts is in 28th place. Texas is ranked 49th in the nation for structurally deficient bridges. This is a 19.6% improvement, which is the most significant improvement by any state. Texas has been making big infrastructure investments. It makes sense to do so. That kind of investment creates both short and long term jobs, and makes the state more attractive to potential investors.

In an effort to avoid making those investments here in NH, House Bill 534 calls for a study commission to consider awarding naming rights for highway bridges, overpasses, and exits. There is much to consider. Is this a purely advertising move? Will those companies be responsible for upkeep? Who will own that bridge, overpass, or exit? Bill sponsor, Rep. J. Tracy Emerick was quoted in the Eagle-Tribune as saying, “Private enterprise could take responsibility for a bridge and keep it up to state code.” Does that mean they buy the bridge? What happens if they fail to keep up their end of whatever deal they make? There are those who believe that private enterprise does everything better, and so the push is on to privatize everything from prisons to schools. The phrase “the public good” has disappeared from our vocabularies.

Privatizing the roads hasn’t worked out so well in Chile. Private companies own the highways. This means paying tolls when you get on the highways and when you get off. The toll schedule for Chilean highways warns, “Don’t be caught without cash.” For the 700-mile trip from Santiago to La Serena, the toll charge is $25. From Santiago to the coast, a journey of $186 miles, the toll charges are $20, adding roughly $2.69 per gallon to the cost of gas.

In the beginning, these private investors paid for the building of the Chilean highways. It was supposed to be a loan, and the tolls were supposed to decrease over time to just cover the maintenance. Naturally the tolls never decreased. Instead, they’ve continued to increase over time. Private enterprise doesn’t do anything altruistic – not in Chile, not in NH – not anywhere. It always comes down to profit. A family driving up to the mountains for a ski trip, already a fairly expensive outing, when faced with paying a $5 toll to use the Big Name Corporate Exit Ramp, then another $5 to cross the Big Corporate Bank Bridge may well decide to veer off to friendlier territory in Vermont or Maine.

The idea of privatizing transportation infrastructure has other sinister implications. In the greater Mt. Washington Valley area, rental housing costs are astronomical, while wages have been stagnant for decades. Those people who actually do the low wage work that tourist areas rely on have been priced out of living in the towns they work in, and are forced to commute from ever increasing distances. If bridges and roads become privatized, those people already making substandard wages will have one more hard choice to make. They’re already juggling how to pay rent, put food on the table and keep gas in the car. Adding tolls to that would be unconscionable.

Private isn’t always better – which is how our national public infrastructure came to be built in the first place. The United States has the funds to rebuild our national infrastructure and help all of the states. It’s just that we’d rather spend that money on war. We’ll still be shoveling billions at the F-35 (which still won't be able to fly) when our bridges are collapsing around us.

In NH, we’d rather not spend any money on anything at all. We’d rather continue to pay the pound of cure, and sell our public infrastructure to the lowest bidder.  NH is always desperate for the short-term quick fix, while giving no thought to the consequences or the future.  A legislature comprised overwhelmingly of retirees guarantees that we’ll continue to be mired up to our axles in the past.

© sbruce 2014
From my bi-weekly column in the Conway Daily Sun newspaper. 


Anonymous said...

That must be why Sovereign Citizen and former candidate for sheriff, Frank Szabo, has settled in Chile. None of those commie public highways! Although, he will have to put up with that Chilean socialized medicine. I think he secretly likes being able to go the doctor without paying.

Brian Loudermilch said...

Once upon a time, back in "the Good Old days", this country had the money to INVEST in things like roads and bridges.

There was NO Federal Deficit.

The top Federal income tax rate back then was 90 Percent.

Rest assured, when a Bridge collapse kills one of the wealthy 1 Percent, there will be a never ceasing demand that "Something Must Be Done".

Just Don't Raise Taxes.

Because "Taxes are BAD".

Steven J. Connolly said...

This is an irresponsible post.

The "bridges are not collapsing around us." There is huge difference and truth behind a red list bridge and a bridge that collapses.

Susan The Bruce who self-proclaims how much time she spends in the Statehouse should already know this.

If the highway trust fund were used as intended, any structural problems would in fact be resolved. But it isn't instead the cabal in Concord wants capital items like subsidized passenger rail and solar powered toll plazas. DOT Commissioner Clement seems to be incapable of not only saying 'no' to these capital unneeded ideas but he actually authorizes more spending and more grants as the quicksand only gets deeper.

I'm confident Susan The Bruce knows all of this but for whatever reason has chosen not to report it. It is much easier to scare people than it is to confront the truth.

susanthe said...

Excellent! Noted white supremacist and Nazi admirer Steven J. Connolly has stopped by for his daily troll.

He perpetuates the wingnut austerity meme: "if the highway fund were used as intended..." Of course, if the highway fund were used as intended it would still not be enough. As for the raiding of the fund - why does that occur? Hmm...could it be because NH refuses to raise enough revenue to properly fund the state?

Mr Connolly claims to be a former legislator. If that is so, than he's part of the problem. The GOP controlled legislature ignored NH infrastructure for decades. We now have the 11th worst infrastructure in the United States because of Connolly and his ilk.

susanthe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.