Editorial: Latest road dispute was inevitable

November 6, 2013 

I-26_I-20_JB001

Columbia's Malfunction Junction, at I-26 near its junction with I-20

FILE PHOTO — THE STATE

— ON ITS FACE, it makes all the sense in the world to spend our state’s limited road-repair money on our state’s No. 1 repair project, as some on the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank want to do, by straightening out Malfunction Junction instead of adding a couple of miles of extra lanes to I-77 on the other side of Columbia.

Indeed, when you consider the sorts of changes people thought the Infrastructure Bank’s board would make to the State Transportation Commission’s road-improvement plan, this idea seems downright responsible.

The problem is that the amount of money the Infrastructure Bank has available to spend over the next decade and a half is just $550 million, and the Malfunction Junction project costs at least $700 million. So if the board votes on Tuesday to spend $12 million for design work, it will do so knowing full well that the money to complete the project it’s designing won’t even begin to be available for at least a decade and a half.

Here’s some further perspective on those numbers: The $550 million the Infrastructure Bank can spend over the next 15 years is roughly what officials say the state needs to add to state road funding per year, for decades, just to get us caught up on our neglected road and bridge work.

The State Transportation Commission had recommended that the Infrastructure Bank use the $550 million to complete four projects; the alternate plan that some on the Infrastructure Bank are pushing would start work on three projects and spend the rest of the money on design work for seven projects, including Malfunction Junction.

That’s in keeping with the Infrastructure Bank’s habit of spending money doing a little bit of prep work here and a little there on far more projects than it has money to pay for; that’s how it managed to use up all of its bonding capacity, and start approving projects based on projected future capacity. Of course, the Transportation Commission also has been known to act similarly on whatever projects it happens to favor at any given moment.

Which leads us to another problem: When legislators voted this year to divert sales tax revenue from the general fund to the road fund — for the first time ever abandoning the sound proposition that roads should be funded through gasoline taxes and license fees and other payments that are directly related to the use of roads — they expected that the Transportation Commission would call the shots.

Of course, that was crazy, since the law they passed didn’t actually mandate that. Anyone who is upset that these two fiercely political, and fiercely independent, entities would have two different ideas about how to spend our tax money ought to consider that maybe we shouldn’t be giving both entities a role in that task.

And anyone who thinks you can completely remove politics from the decisions about how we spend hundreds of millions of dollars — on roads and bridges or anything else — isn’t being realistic. The best you can do is try to limit the politics. Of course our Legislature has never tried to do that. Individual legislators have simply tried to find ways to make sure their political interests won out.

In road building, the way you limit politics is by requiring the use of objective criteria. Our state law claims to do that, but it doesn’t. While it requires the Transportation Commission to rank road projects according to objective criteria (how many people use each road, the condition of the road, the number of wrecks per mile and so on), it doesn’t require the commission to make decisions based on those rankings, and so it doesn’t. The Infrastructure Bank isn’t even required to pretend to care about such good-government concepts.

Some legislators have tried to change that, but so far they have gotten nowhere. They need to get somewhere. And they need to stop doling out more money to these entities until they do.

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