Infrastructure Fervor

By: 
TOM BURNETT, KEN NORDTVEDT and PAUL NACHMAN

What do many state and national politicians have in common? Proposals to spend on infrastructure at a monumental scale. Hillary Clinton’s plan “would support about $500 billion in spending on infrastructure,” according to the New York Times. Donald Trump said he’d like to double Clinton’s amount. Bernie Sanders wanted to outspend Clinton, calling for “a $1 trillion investment over five years.”

In comparison, Governor Bullock may seem like a piker, who estimated in April 2016 his package for roads, schools, Romney Gym (at MSU-Bozeman), impacted communities, and a veteran’s home in Butte would cost “only” $200 million. This, though, can viewed as a mere toe in the door for the Society of Civil Engineers’ desire that Montana tackle a maintenance backlog of $30 billion, 150 times the size of Bullock’s current ambitions. While the Bullock plan requires $400 from each taxpayer, it’s plain to see that it’s just a warm-up and that people should brace for perpetual and escalating demands.

But such wide popularity prompts some off-the-bandwagon thinking, some contrarian sobriety.

Consider basic questions: What is infrastructure and why is it important? Whose responsibility is it to pay? What’s the fairest way to allocate state funds for it? Can spending go awry?

Infrastructure includes roads, bridges, ports, airports, sewer, water and electric systems, pipelines. It’s important because it can, properly done, facilitate economic development and prosperity.

If infrastructure’s benefits are broadly distributed, its costs should be generally borne by all in society through taxes. But infrastructure that primarily benefits a particular city should be funded by people of that city.

Infrastructure projects presented to the legislature in recent sessions have been mostly for local needs, with few even remotely of statewide importance. Local needs should be funded by localities. Elevating the arena of discussion from the locality to the state legislature invites cronyism and political chicanery; the state budget becomes a big piñata, subject to sleazy pork-barreling. Favors can be traded and principled legislators penalized. Cities vie for top ranking, clawing for more than their share of the tax haul, like magpies around a carcass.

Discussions about what can be afforded are so much more real at a city council meeting than at the legislature. Redistribution is inevitable when the funding allocation process goes up one level from where it should be decided.

Under redistribution, in effect, town A pays for town B’s water system, town B pays for C’s bridge, town C pays for town D’s sewer system, town E hopes the legislature assigns some town to pay for what it needs. Some towns come out with more than the taxes extracted from their people, some come out with less. Why should Lima buy Havre’s water plant? Why should Forsyth fill Libby’s potholes? Of course, no transfer is that specific, but thinking about it in this way is illustrative.

In Montana, “stimulus” funds built a garage for Bozeman’s mass-transit buses, but years later the building houses no Streamline buses; instead, a private contractor maintains the buses. Pablo sports a $3-million footbridge over Highway 93 that is rarely trod. The $1.5-million “elk bridge” at Evaro is part of a series of forty animal crossings that cost over $12 million. In one year many deer and domestic pets used the crossings, but only five elk and three grizzlies; surprisingly, animal/vehicle collisions actually increased in the year after completion. And nine days before dying in a bridge construction accident, a relative of one of the authors said, “We should quit building bridges that are not needed. I worked on $6.5 million worth of bridges that are a waste of money.”

One of the projects considered in the 2015 legislature was a library renovation at MSU-Billings costing over $1 million. One of us walked through that library a few months ago, mid-week, mid-semester, mid-day, during weather cool enough to discourage outside gatherings and study. On one of the main floors, covering 22,000 square feet, only three students were present while six staff members dawdled. Throughout the state, many college buildings get little use due to over-building and falling enrollments.

Waste is reason enough to worry about the infrastructure-spending bandwagon, but the most salient objection is about redistribution, with its inevitable cost shifts. Projects should be funded by those who need them and benefit from them, not loaded upon people in other localities via the legislature’s taxing and spending authority.

In short, the fervor for infrastructure merits healthy skepticism. 

 

 

 

Tom Burnett is a member of the state House of Representatives. Ken Nordtvedt is a former member of the state House of Representatives. Paul Nachman is a retired physicist

 

 

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