Ambrose: Bridge collapse shows structural failures of stimulus

By Jay Ambrose, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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An 18-wheeler truck with contents reaching too high recently slammed into an overhead crossbeam on a bridge crossing the Skagit River in Washington state.

The structure and two cars went splashing down, killing no one but leading to screams that we should immediately spend billions more on bridge safety.

I guess everyone forgot that President Barack Obama took care of the problem with his stimulus package passed in 2009.

Or maybe it was just rhetoric.

He had made it sound like an infrastructure paradise was on the way, and you could imagine him lost in a dream in which panting historians would at some distant point look up old videos and marvel over the enunciated vision. He had, after all, promised a national investment as large as any since President Dwight Eisenhower's historic building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, an era when something of that kind was crucial.

Sorry, but no cigar. It would have taken something more than half of the $831 billion stimulus to equal the final, inflation-adjusted cost of the Ike undertaking, not the Associated Press's recent estimate of what was actually spent: $27 billion for highway projects, of which $3 billion was for bridges.

And although it has apparently been forgotten by liberals blaming any and all infrastructure shortcomings on deficit-fearing Republicans, Obama did not have to deal with the GOP. Democrats controlled both the Senate and House in those days, meaning this was a family affair, so to speak.

After the program got rolling, AP did an analysis of the 2,476 bridges that were beneficiaries of stimulus funds and found that nearly half of them were plenty safe, even though tens of thousands of potentially risky ones were not getting a dime. The thing was, the states overseeing the projects wanted to spend the money immediately to get the economy rolling along and it could take longer to start work on some of the less-sound bridges, they said.

An administration official smiled and said fine, and you might figure that made lots of sense — except that there was a bunch of other stuff in the stimulus that would not get immediate attention, either, some of it downright silly, some of it outlandish pork. Don't forget Obama's cherished plans for high-speed rail ventures were far less shovel-ready than these bridges of which we speak.

Obama at it again

In his State of the Union speech this year, Obama was at it again, this time asking for $50 billion to fix something like 67,000 structurally deficient bridges, perhaps making up for what previously did not get done. But there are all kinds of problems with that, too.

One is that the issue goes beyond structurally deficient bridges; that was not the problem in the Skagit River collapse. Another is that we had a sequester cutting instead of increasing the budget. The method of those cuts was indefensible, but we really, truly do have to watch the spending, especially after that stimulus and the add-on stimulus measures that followed, taking the final price between $1 trillion and $1.7 trillion, based on a Washington Post writer's estimate.

Still another issue is that the federal gas tax is not producing enough funds because of the economic slowdown and because of more cars that consume less gas per mile. Yet another is that the government is forever diverting infrastructure money to mass transit and other projects that don't deal with the real problems.

Check in with some of the libertarian and conservative analysts out there, and you'll learn that some of our bridge troubles have been getting better over the past decades. You will find discussion of tolls, of private-public partnerships, of more reliance on local government, and you will be reminded that prudent, responsible, disciplined government has a huge advantage over the kind that sees few limits.

It works.