Every now and again, a large bridge collapses somewhere in America.
It’s just a shame it doesn’t happen more often.
At least that’s the conclusion I drew after watching John Oliver’s report on infrastructure on last Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.
As we all know, the highways and byways that physically hold our country together are in a fairly wretched state. Our roads, bridges, tunnels and dams are slowly crumbling beneath our feet and we are doing precious little to stop it.
According to a 2013 report, for instance, roughly 11 percent of all U.S. bridges have been deemed “structurally deficient,” meaning they require “significant maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement.” When asked if the 66,000 bridges in question were “unsafe,” former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rather unhelpfully answered, “I don’t wanna say they’re unsafe, but they’re dangerous.”
The primary source of federal infrastructure money—as Oliver went on to explain—is the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, which collects 18.3 cents for every gallon of fuel consumed by American cars. It’s a fair enough trade: If you drive on our country’s highways, then you should help pay for their upkeep.
The trouble is that 18.3 cents per gallon simply isn’t enough to cover all the work that needs to be done, and the Trust Fund is about to go bust. The main reason is that the tax rate has not been raised in 22 years. In effect, we are maintaining our federal structures based on the economy of 1993, when gas was just over a dollar per gallon and 18.3 cents was actually worth something.
What we should do—if we insist on linking the Trust Fund to fuel consumption—is allow the gas tax to rise automatically with inflation, so that its real value remains constant. Many experts recommend this, and several states already take such an approach to state gas taxes.
But we don’t do this, and there is absolutely no mystery as to why.
In point of fact, politicians are terrified of raising taxes of any sort, because they understand a central truth about the psychology of the American voter: We refuse to pay for anything that doesn’t seem completely necessary at the exact moment that we pay for it. And we are certainly not, in any case, going to make investments that might not eventually benefit us personally.
Indeed, we Americans are nothing if not selfish and short-sighted—two character traits that will prove our downfall here, as they have on so many other occasions.
To wit: Pretty much everyone believes in highways that are reasonably well-paved and dams that don’t spontaneously burst open and drown the entire Pacific Coast. Everyone understands that those things cost money and that only the government can handle it.
But then, when you follow the logic to its natural conclusion, suddenly everyone starts coming up with reasons why infrastructure isn’t such a pressing concern after all. Or, alternatively, insisting that the government find a different way to fund it. Namely, one that spends other people’s tax dollars without spending one’s own.
You can argue all you want that an increase in the federal gas tax will yield greater infrastructure capital, but to most people, all it means is a costlier drive back and forth to work, and who wants that? Even if you succeed in drawing the line from higher gas prices to safer highways, how do we know that that money will benefit the roads that we drive and the bridges that we cross? Why should folks in New England invest in the well-being of some crumbling interstate in the Midwest?
That’s why it will probably take a few more high-profile bridge collapses for the whole concept to really kick in.
As with most other forms of insurance, people do not like to put money down to protect against something that may not ever happen. Better—and cheaper—to just hope that everything will work out for the best. And if it doesn’t? Well, that’s what grandchildren are for.
Alas, often the only time people truly care about disaster prevention—let alone routine maintenance and inspection—is when a disaster actually occurs, and the same principle applies to the country as a whole. It’s why our “national conversations” about gun control only break out in the aftermath of some horrid school shooting, or why we ponder hurricane preparedness only once the citizens of New Orleans are waist-deep in toxic sludge.
And sometimes not even then.
We like to think that large-scale calamities, be they natural or manmade, only ever happen to other people. If we assumed, instead, that they will eventually happen to us, perhaps we wouldn’t mind tossing a few extra bucks into the hat. You know, just in case.
Unfortunately, not enough of us think like that, which means our elected representatives will have little choice but to follow our lead, kicking the can further down whatever’s left of the road.
America’s infrastructure will continue to get worse before it gets better, and a lot more people will needlessly be killed because we’ve decided, as a people, that it’s not worth paying more for gas in order to save them.
That’s what “national values” are all about, and we might consider improving upon them in the future. One more bridge for us to cross.