By All Means, Prioritize

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The Seattle Times

By All Means, Prioritize

by
Floyd J. McKay

President George W. Bush was half right when he rejected a proposed gasoline-tax increase to fix the nation's stressed highway bridges.

"Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge Congress to examine how they set priorities," said Bush.

Right on, Mr. President! Now, can we get serious about that and take a long overdue look at how much we are spending on weapons systems and Star Wars stuff that few think will actually work?

And, yes, Congress needs to get with it as well.

Minnesota's bridge collapse was another wake-up call telling us we're neglecting domestic needs to spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined. Fiscal insanity is what it should be called.

It's not just bridges; the entire American infrastructure needs upgrading. Washington is better-off than most states, but our needs are staggering. We all know about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct and Highway 520 bridge, but consider a few items from the most recent report of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE):

• The state has a $4 billion backlog of drinking-water infrastructure needs, including up to $14 million to provide safe drinking water in Seattle schools;

• Wastewater needs total $2.74 billion;

• Sixty percent of Washington schools have at least one inadequate building and 74 percent have at least one unsatisfactory environmental problem;

• Rehabilitating the state's most-critical dams would cost $75.9 million - the state lists 31 dams as deficient;

• Twenty-eight percent of Washington's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition.

Our bridges are actually better than most - the Federal Highway Administration ranks them sixth-best in the country, with 381 structurally deficient bridges out of a total of 7,588, a 5-percent rate. ASCE says 26 percent are "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete."

Washington's big growth has been since World War II, so many bridges and highways are newer and built to higher standards, and we have a better economy and higher taxes than some states. Minnesota is actually among the states capable of dealing with a major disaster; smaller or poorer states would struggle.

That's a good reason why the response needs to be federal, not local. If you are on a bridge in Idaho or Wisconsin and it collapses, you're as dead as you would be in Seattle. Dangerous roads, bad drinking water and untreated sewage affect everyone.

We are constantly setting priorities, declaring "war" on problems - recall the wars on drugs and poverty, not to mention the war on terrorism. With the exception of the latter, these "wars" are never as well-funded as our military.

Infrastructure doesn't lend itself to catchy "war" rhetoric. But the growth of this country in the past half-century has not been matched by our ability to maintain aging and sometimes-unsafe facilities. As we all know, it's tempting to let our peeling house paint go another year because baby needs a new pair of shoes.

We also want an easy fix. Shortly after the Minnesota bridge disaster, readers of this newspaper weighed in with ways to care for local needs. In a single day (Northwest Voices, Aug. 7), suggestions included: dump light rail, stop free health care to children of illegal immigrants, use funds planned for a Woodland Park Zoo garage, use bicycle-path funds. None of the above would do the job; a broader funding base is needed.

A nation spending up to $2 trillion on a foolish war in Iraq and untold billions more to build a "missile shield" in Eastern Europe and support troops in dozens of nations around the world can surely divert some of those funds to support the health and welfare of citizens in our own country - and still maintain a strong military.

Safe drinking water, safe bridges and highways, and a decent environment for inner-city schools should not need to be put on "war" footing to become a priority. Our economy would benefit from family-wage jobs to repair or replace infrastructure needs, and small communities and rural areas would get help they cannot afford on their own.

The arms industry is already bloated with profit and the Bush administration is pledging $63 billion in weapons gifts or sales (over 10 years) to the Middle East tinderbox, part of our "peace" initiative in the region. We will spend $70 billion to deploy the controversial Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft - enough to repair nearly half of our 73,784 unsafe bridges.

The president is correct - Congress needs to examine its priorities. So does he. Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

© 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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