Remember the “bridge to nowhere”? Officially called the Gravina Island access project, the bridge was intended to replace ferry service between Ketchikan, Alaska (population of 8,000), and Gravina Island (population 50), home to the region’s airport. The bridge became a powerful symbol of government waste, misallocation of resources, and inability to set proper priorities.
After much bad press, the bridge plan was scrapped and some of the earmarked funding was diverted to repair a hurricane-damaged bridge in New Orleans. More than a decade later and much closer to home, another bridge has made news. The Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square, is a bridge to somewhere, but it too provides a powerful symbol of government waste and inefficiency.
This 232-foot bridge was built in 1912 in just 11 months. The current rehabilitation was projected to cost about $20 million when the project began in 2012. Four years later the cost is $26 million and counting, and there is no projected completion date. It serves more than 21,000 vehicles and 15,000 bus riders each day, so beyond the inconvenience and danger to pedestrians and cyclists, increased congestion caused by project delays are estimated to have cost the local economy $40 million.
These facts and the example they provide of how government and non-governmental agencies operate to protect their fiefdoms independently of the imperative to serve taxpayers and the traveling public were recently highlighted by none other than Harvard professor Larry Summers. Summers served a Harvard President, Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, and Director of the National Economic Council in the Obama administration.
In an op-ed in the Boston Globe and a Wonkblog posting at the Washington Post, Summers “empathized with the two-thirds of Americans who distrust government ” after witnessing such ineptitude. He provided historical examples of how leaders once built bridges: To cross the Rhine in 55 BC., Julius Caesar’s legions built a bridge six-times longer than the Anderson Bridge in just 10 days. Two thousand years later, General Patton constructed nearly 40 times as much bridging across the Rhine in just six months, to help the Allies win World War II. Fun facts, but not helpful when trying to figure out how to solve our current infrastructure dilemma.
Summers, a self-described Progressive, suggested that it’s “plausible to wonder if government can build a nation abroad, fight social decay, run schools, mandate the design of cars, run health insurance exchanges, or set proper sexual harassment policies on college campuses, if it can’t even fix a 232-foot bridge competently.” To which I say, “Welcome to the party, pal!”
Questioning Progressive shibboleths is a good first step on the road to fixing what ails us, and a difficult one for someone as professionally invested in the movement as Summers, but how much more evidence does the good professor need before he decides that government — especially the Federal government — can’t do well most of the tasks it’s taken on or we’ve delegated to it these past 100 years?
Summers wrote that we “seem to be caught in a dismal cycle of low expectations, poor results and shared cynicism” and wonders how we could have “regressed to the point where a bridge that could be built in less than a year one century ago takes five times as long to repair today?
Unfortunately, while questioning government competence is “plausible” for Summers, he quickly reverts to form: “America desperately needs a major increase in infrastructure investment and, if carried out effectively, an investment program could come close to paying for itself by generating an expanding economy.” What evidence does he provide supporting the idea that our government is capable of carrying out that task effectively? None. While admitting that “public trust in government remains near all-time lows,” he simply states that “citizens need to believe that the government is up to the task.”
The public’s lack of faith in government is well-documented and well-founded. The latest Pew Research National Election Study showed that only 19% of Americans believe they can trust the Federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time”. To put that into perspective, a 2014 AP poll found that 21% of Americans believe that Bigfoot is a real creature.
When Pew first conducted this survey in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. A lot has happened since then. “Trust, but verify,” Ronald Reagan said about the Soviets. It’s time we apply that sage advice to our own government. Faith can move mountains, but it can’t move a government bureaucracy.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org