Avoiding the Next 'Bridge to Nowhere'

Congress has to provide leadership to ensure that limited dollars are spent wisely.

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Mackinac Bridge from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
Mackinac Bridge from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.

Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

For all the disagreements in Washington, there are always voices on both sides of the political aisle calling for smart infrastructure investments. After all, investments in ports, rails, roads, and transit facilitate commerce, allow people to travel to their jobs, and generally help keep the economy moving. In addition, we all depend on sewer systems and many communities depend on municipal water systems. And fixing and building roads, rails, buses, and other systems keeps construction workers busy.

Even the role of the federal government in infrastructure investments is relatively uncontroversial. It is no accident that the transportation bill was one of the few pieces of legislation passed by the notoriously unproductive 112th Congress: Even Tea Party members want roads and bridges in their communities.

But agreement only goes so far. Once you get to questions of what actually makes a wise investment, and how to pay for it, it tends to fall apart. After all, one man's ideal investment is another man's boondoggle.

The Bridge to Nowhere, the $200 million bridge proposed to serve an island with 50 inhabitants – and perhaps the most infamously wasteful earmark – was vigorously defended by its champions and survived several votes to eliminate it before finally meeting its demise. And that transportation bill passed last year? No matter how you try, the numbers don't add up, so even at the height of talk of fiscal austerity and balancing budgets, Congress passed a bill that spends more than it projects taking in.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Is there any way to come to some agreement about how to define a smart infrastructure investment policy? We think there are some critical elements that make sense and would clearly help the country move forward.  

As a starting point, particularly given the state of disrepair of our bridges and roads, a policy of “fix it first” is a good idea on every level – it saves money, increases safety, and protects existing investments and communities. And while this gets discussed in the context of roads and bridges with some commitment, we should be equally committed to this strategy in other areas of infrastructure. We need to prioritize protecting the investments we have already made.

Next, we need to develop clear and enforceable performance standards to inform our decision making about infrastructure investments across the board – from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers water projects, to transit projects, to roads and bridges. If we don't know the condition of the system as it currently exists, and we don't measure how it's changing over time, it is impossible to know if we are spending wisely or simply throwing good money after bad.

American taxpayers need to understand what return on investment we can expect for the dollars we are investing. Last year's transportation bill started in this direction by requiring that metrics be established to measure how the transportation system is performing in areas such as safety, congestion, and the condition of our roads and bridges.

But even as we await word from Washington regarding what form these measures will take, we know that Congress will need to remain committed to this effort if it's going to improve how we invest. This will require enforcement, robust oversight, and effective penalties for states that are investing poorly, all areas that Congress has not excelled in recently. Meanwhile, other agencies responsible for infrastructure spending, notably the Army Corps of Engineers, have done little in the way to incorporate performance measurement in their spending plans.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Finally, the most important policy shift we need in Washington is the articulation of a clear and sensible method of setting priorities for our infrastructure investments. Prioritization needs to be incorporated into every authorizing bill relating to infrastructure investment, including the surface transportation bill, the water projects bill, and the aviation bill.

Prioritization can be politically difficult if it forces members of Congress to concede that their favorite projects may not be the nation's highest priority. However, if lawmakers did the dirty work of defining a set of priorities around criteria related to performance, return on investment, community need, financial sustainability, avoidance of long term liabilities, and other neutral concepts, they could likely avoid the pitfall of opposing projects within their own backyards while helping ensure that Bridges to Nowhere are never given serious consideration.

But just last week the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a Water Resources Development Act that doesn't set priorities for the Corps in spending and project creation, despite a $60 billion backlog of authorized projects and an annual agency construction budget that is less than $2 billion.

The federal government invests an enormous sum each year in infrastructure projects, and therefore has an enormous incentive to ensure the money is spent to its greatest purpose. There are mountains of evidence that this is not the case. But with the need for investment increasing and the available financial resources scarce, it is high time Congress provide the leadership necessary to ensure that our limited dollars are spent wisely.

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