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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Bridge funding, Reagan’s reach

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: April 16, 2023, 6:02am

In reading the headline the other day, “Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez seeks I-5 Bridge funding,” naturally my thoughts turned to … Ronald Reagan.

I know, I know, it seems like a stretch to suggest that somebody who was president 40 years ago plays a role in whether or not we build a new Interstate 5 Bridge. And it might be an exaggeration to say that Reagan is influencing policy nearly 20 years after his death.

But two factors are at play: It often takes decades for the impact of policy decisions to be assessed; and Reagan had an outsized influence on conservative thought that lingers today. Those things play a role in the idea of a new congressional representative seeking federal funding for a bridge that is local in existence but national in importance.

Perez has taken the lead — and has been joined by a bipartisan group of 29 representatives — in asking the House Appropriations Committee to fully fund the Federal Highway Administration’s Bridge Investment Program. Full funding would mean $650 million, with some of that earmarked for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.

“Southwest Washington knows the impact of relying on a structurally deficient bridge all too well,” Perez wrote in a letter to the committee. “Commuters are stuck in endless traffic, and the narrow lanes are a safety hazard. Fully funding this program will help us get the funds we need to build the I-5 Bridge Replacement and improve the country’s transportation infrastructure as a whole.”

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.