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The Ineptness of Centralized Planning


The so-called 'Bridge to Nowhere' in Alaska became a national joke in 2005 after ABC's '20/20' put the spotlight on this particularly fat slice of pork.

The proposed bridge, since cancelled, was to replace a ferry that runs every 15 minutes or so between Ketchikan, a small town on the island of Revillagigedo, and Gravina Island.

The ferry ride, $5 per person ($6 for cars), takes about 5 minutes — a half-mile ride across the small waterway that separates Ketchikan and Gravina.

Ketchikan promotes itself as 'the home of the world's largest collection of standing totem poles.' At the other end of the ride, salon.com columnist Rebecca Clarren describes Gravina: 'The 20-mile-long island, home to fewer than 50 people, has no stores, no restaurants, and no paved roads.'

The biggest thing on Gravina is Ketchikan International, an airport with fewer than 10 commercial flights per day.

With an initially estimated cost to federal taxpayers of $320 million, before overruns, the Gravina Bridge was to have been nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge and six stories taller than the Brooklyn Bridge — tall enough to permit the largest cruise ships to pass beneath.

The bridge was one of a record 6,371 'earmarks' in the Transportation Equity Act of 2005, an authorization of spending for a five-year period, 2005-2009. Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), as Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, got more than his share of the pork.

Alaska, with the nation's third-smallest population, hit the jackpot as the fourth-biggest recipient of funds in the 2005 transportation bill.

Noting that transportation funding is 'fed by the gas tax at the pump,' Clarren reported on the disparity between states in how funds were distributed in the 2005 bill: 'The bill spends $86 per person on a national average; it spends an estimated $1,500 on every Alaskan.'

It's a system, in short, that distributes capital according to political power, according to seniority, rather than by way of calculating economic efficiencies and conducting a rational analysis of the nation's transportation needs.

On August 10, 2005, President George W. Bush signed the Transportation Equity Act. New Orleans, 19 days later, was hit by Hurricane Katrina. A year later, the official number of dead in Louisiana attributed to the hurricane was 1,464.

'Regional newspapers, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself warned that a strong hurricane could have cataclysmic consequences on New Orleans and the surrounding area,' wrote John Stossel a few days after the storm.

'It's been reported that just before 9/11, FEMA warned that the three biggest threats to America were a terrorist attack on New York City, a massive earthquake in San Francisco, and flooding in New Orleans if a big hurricane hit,' explained Stossel. 'The Army Corps of Engineers asked or $27 million to strengthen New Orleans' levees, so they might not break, but Congress gave just a fraction of that.' The chair of the Committee on Transportation wasn't from New Orleans.

In Alaska, meanwhile, 'Rep. Don Young was so proud of the House version of the pork-loaded Transportation Equity Act that he named it TEA-LU, after his wife, Lu,' reports Clarren. 'He has said of the bill, 'I stuffed it like a turkey.''

As early as 1990, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota's fifth-busiest bridge, carrying 140,000 vehicles per day, was rated as 'structurally deficient.'

Last year during the bumper-to-bumper rush hour, at 6:05 P.M. on August 1, the entire span of the bridge broke into sections and collapsed, sending people, vehicles, concrete and twisted metal into the Mississippi River.

"I stuffed it like a turkey."
– Rep. Don Young (D-AK)

'Every Minneapolis ambulance had been requested to the scene,' reported MSNBC. 'A freight train was passing under the bridge when it collapsed and was cut in two.' Governor Tim Pawlenty called the collapse 'a catastrophe of historic proportions.'

At the federal level, the Homeland Security Department (HSD) stated that the collapse 'did not appear to be terrorism-related.' No one at HSD suggested that the collapse was corruption related, directly connected to the irrationality and fraud in Washington and the lack of 'equity' in the Transportation Equity Act.

With dive teams still searching several days after the collapse for cars and bodies in the fast-moving river current, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that a team of investigators would be flying from Washington to Minneapolis. No one at NTSB announced that any investigators would skip the flying and focus instead on the shenanigans and ineptitude in the House Committee on Transportation.

Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.

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