Thursday, April 03, 2008

"In the throes of a political dust bowl."

Monuments to inaction

April 03, 2008

John Young
The Waco Tribune-Herald
Copyright 2008

In the too-long family sedan of my distant youth, on too-long stretches of Texas highway, roadside markers were points of reverence.

Those markers, and those highways, reflected a young state bursting with pride, with heritage, with resources.

These days another roadside marker prevails: a barren scar in the turf.

It’s where irritated drivers in too-tall vehicles forsake the highway for the access road without benefit of an off ramp. We call it a pop-ramp.

Caught up in political traffic jams in an age of false scarcity, policymakers increasingly obliterate the turf as they off-road to other matters, leaving the highway to the elements.

In Washington, we commit $340 million a day to an invasion built around speculation.

In Texas, we doggedly commit to penury, though brimming with wealth.

Penury is the state of having nothing. Relative to ideas to broadly fund highways, lawmakers state and local are broadly penurious.

State blow-up

Emblematic here is a blow-up between state lawmakers and the Texas Department of Transportation, a puppet on Gov. Rick Perry’s knee. The agency says that it only has enough money to maintain roads, and the only way to build roads in current straits is tolls.

Lawmakers have blasted the agency’s book-keeping and said that it hasn’t utilized bonds authorized for construction.

Last week the agency responded that it would shift maintenance/repair dollars to construction. This of course begs the question, “So, what about maintenance and repair?”

The food fight between the lawmakers and the transportation bureaucracy is good theater. But despite the denunciations, you can’t name one combatant without ketchup on the collar.

Our state is obscenely behind on its highway needs — $23 billion behind over the next 11 years just to maintain what it has.

Perry’s pedal-to-the-metal push for toll roads ran into major resistance in the last Legislature. Lawmakers woke up to the realization that transportation policy in Texas somehow had become hijacked by for-profit concerns.

But, then, they have barely come up with any alternatives. They’ve balked at raising the state gasoline tax. Other broad-based funding mechanisms have collected cobwebs.

The same thing is happening in Washington under trickle-down fiscal sorcery. Basically under George W. Bush, federal policy has been, “In your Hummer, you don’t need no stinkin’ roads.”

The Federal Highway Trust Fund is at its lowest level in 20 years, in part because the cost of construction has soared so with the price of gasoline, and in part because gas prices are putting a crimp in driving and hurting gas-tax revenues.

Proposals to raise the federal gas tax have been beaten down, even though it would accomplish two things: (1) boost the sagging highway fund; (2) further raise the imperative for fuel conservation.

So while we ponder the uncertain liquidity of Social Security and Medicare, here’s another prospect. Unless something changes, the Federal Highway Trust Fund will be in a deficit in fiscal 2009. Meanwhile, demands will continue to grow on those highways. Truck traffic nationwide is projected to increase 20 to 30 percent over the next 20 years.

The infuriating thing is this: We have the resources.

Yes, we do, America. Yes, we do, Texas.

But we are in the throes of a political dust bowl. We are convinced the ground is barren, the only way out is to give up on what government can do.

We are convinced that the only way to have public functions is to put them up for bids, selling them even to foreign interests.

Talk about a disconnect. Relative to our open-ended commitment to occupy Iraq, our resources know no limit. But we can’t focus on the most basic needs of our own towns and highway corridors. We can’t, for as they say, money’s too tight.

Some people in too-tall vehicles may not need highways to get where they wish, but the rest of us do. So, America, are we penniless to deal with this, or are we just driverless?

© 2008, Waco Tribune-Herald:

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