For a project expected to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, pleading for up to $650 million seems rather insignificant. But it reflects the vast changes in the role of the federal government over the years.
When the Interstate 205 Bridge opened in 1982, the federal government had paid for 91.8 percent of it. The project cost $169.6 million, with $4 million coming from Washington, $9.9 million from Oregon and the rest from Washington, D.C. Well, it came from taxpayers, but you get the point.
(How the cost for a new bridge can be at least 2,948 percent more when inflation has gone up 309 percent during that period is a column for another time.)
Anyway, that’s where Reagan comes in. Because during the 1980s, he was ushering in a new federalism, attempting to scale back the might of the federal government and return as many powers as possible to the states. This also returned many of the costs of governing and building things to the states.
In some regards it was successful, in others it was not. But most important, it spawned a generation of acolytes who take as gospel Reagan’s mantra: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
We could debate the details of that philosophy until the sun comes up, but it has informed generations of conservatives in American politics. And it has fueled a culture in which it is increasingly difficult to collectively construct big, grandiose, visionary projects that benefit our nation.
But what often is lost in our modern politics of stridency and outrage is that Reagan also could be a pragmatist. In 1982, he proposed a 5-cent increase to the federal gas tax to fund a highway and bridge program, and Congress agreed. “The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost,” Reagan said. Since 1993, under presidents of both parties, the federal gas tax has remained unchanged.
Many modern Republicans have embraced Reagan’s antigovernment positions (which somehow resulted in a 53 percent increase to the federal budget during his presidency) without similarly adopting his pragmatism. The result is ideologues without the ability to govern, demagogues bereft of leadership.
But again, that is a column for another time. For now, we are talking about the Interstate 5 Bridge. And we are longing for the days when the federal government would pay for 90 percent of projects that benefit all Americans.