Regional Government in Two-and-a-Half Acts
Most of the changes that the Department of Transportation proposed to the new Sakonnet Bridge project, last night, were centered on cost savings. The bridge will be starting closer to the water; parts of it will be built on back-filled land (rather than additional structural columns); the metal will be “weathered steel,” which acquires a consistent brown color over time (rust colored, but not splotchy or suggestive of decay), rather than stainless steel.
Now, it’s the job of local elected officials to fight for ideal circumstances for their constituents, and the disrepair of the current bridge, with its weight restrictions and shabby look, certainly cost the town in money, convenience, and aesthetics. Assurances ought to be sought that the bridge won’t (1) soon be in need of major repair or replacement and (2) look like a slap-dash affair.
It’s a bit much, though, to hear a largely (perhaps totally) Democrat town council, along with the state representatives in attendance, harangue a Dept. of Transportation representative over poor upkeep and cost saving efforts. Council VP Donald Bollin insisted, to DOT Deputy Engineer Kazem Farhoumand, that the old bridge should be repaired such that the weight limit could be lifted, and then the new bridge built “whatever the cost will be to get a bridge that will last.”
Not having researched the project extensively, I can only surmise that sufficient repairs to the old bridge would be such an extensive undertaking that simply replacing it is ultimately more efficient and cost effective. That some elected officials and citizens of the town gave scarcely lip service to the savings suggests that they don’t see the expense as their own. It’s “get as much as you can,” without a broader picture of the costs of that approach.
According to the Newport Daily News article about last night, the current projected cost of the project is around $180 million. If DOT’s federal funding breakdown (which I found under its Web site’s FAQ of “Where does the Rhode Island Department of Transportation get its funding?”) is the whole story, only about 13% will come from earmarked federal funds. Unless I’m missing something, that means that the rest of the funds are allocated under state control.
To broaden the picture, consider the state’s 2008 budget appropriations (PDF): Federal funds account for 73.4% of DOT’s entire budget. In other words, the state contributes very little to the department beyond what it procures from above. Transportation, altogether, accounts for just 5.4% of all state appropriations, while DOT’s share represents 13.7% of the state’s total federal funds. If the bridges are in disrepair, the blame lies with a state government that relies disproportionately on a higher layer of government to cover the costs.
For all of the fear that building the bridge more cheaply will harm the town, I didn’t hear any hint that the state legislators intended to take another look at the structural reasons that DOT’s maintenance record leaves much to be desired. I also didn’t hear any suggestion that the town would find money in its budget to cover discarded amenities.
As I wrote last night, such infrastructural items as roads and bridges ought to be a central responsibility of government, not a dependent investment based on whatever revenue can be drawn above and beyond internal resources. Anybody who’s upset at their lost glimpses of water or the brownish hue of the bridge ought to direct their ire at the people who’ve come up with a thousand better uses for our money, from enviable remuneration packages for public union employees to generous handouts to the state’s free-riders.