Friday, December 16, 2011

Broken Systems: Exhibit A

I'm seeing these signs next to road construction all over the great state of Montana:

The ratio of the 3 levels of government contributing is always basically the same:
  • 90% paid by the federal government
  • 10% paid by the state
  • 0% paid "locally"
Of course, it really makes one think about the definition of "local". For if the federal government is paying for 90% of the project, that means that this particular piece of road construction is being paid for by people from outside the state of Montana, people from Alabama, Texas, California, New Jersey, et al.

This sounds awesome if you're an 8-year old.

But for those of us who completed grade school, we are left wondering who is paying for the similar 90% of road construction costs in Alabama, Texas, California and New Jersey. Surely it isn't us!

As I reflect back on my life in Minnesota, I can't help but remember the absolutely horrible condition of many of the roads in the Twin Cities. Highly traveled asphalt roads in the northern climes face extra challenges due to the extreme temperatures and freezing of water in cracks, the expansion of which exaggerates weaknesses and forms potholes. Quickly. In particular, the 5th street off-ramp from I-94 westbound in Mpls looks like Dresden circa 1945, and has for 2+ years. Despite the fact that it saw massive traffic every day there just weren't the funds to repair it. (See Strong Towns if you're interested in more elegant detail of how we're building our cities and why cities are going broke).

So who is really paying for the maintenance to our infrastructure? The feds? But wait a minute...aren't "the feds" simply American citizens just like me (but who don't live in my city/state) who are clearly charging me for the exact same things in their cities?

And why does our system work in such a way that we use "other people's money" to pay for our infrastructure? There's no way 90% of the people traveling on the above photographed road live and pay taxes outside the state of Montana.

For more perspective, read this Strong Towns story about the financial dealings of the newly proposed Stillwater bridge between Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

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