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COMMUNITY VOICE

'Bridgegate' should be warning of failed transportation management

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 12:01 am

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” at the Fort Lee entrance lanes to the George Washington Bridge serves notice of the dysfunction in the administration of our surface transportation.

The political gamesmanship revealed by emails between Christie appointees is astounding and shameful. Before categorizing it as just another made-for-television political scandal, however, we need to understand how this sort of incident could occur anywhere in the nation.

What we are witnessing in New Jersey has been in the works for decades. It is not merely the fall from grace of one state executive, his name besmirched by staffers whose actions more resemble Shakespearean villains than trusted appointees. It is representative of the failures, manipulations and outright fraud characterizing the realm of surface transportation, specifically urban roads, transit and bridges governed by public bodies and financed by tax dollars.

Among these failures are the enormous cost overruns of Boston’s “Big Dig” tunnel, a project manipulated and maneuvered from the start by consultants and government officials. Similarly, this same consultant-government cabal has attempted to manipulate expensive high-speed rail projects in several states, most notably in California. Cities across the nation pursue high-cost transit projects that offer remarkably low productivity but whose “cool” factor lures voter approval, especially among the young and impressionable.

It should be no surprise that government has come to dominate transportation, a segment so crucially important to the efficient function of our people and our economy. And with government’s deep and entangling intrusion, there is a sense of entitlement and unaccountability among those occupying influential transportation offices — rabbit warrens to which political appointees gravitate and breed in sinecure with time to hatch petty political plots like those in New Jersey.

Government’s near-complete corruption of surface-transportation infrastructure can be seen in the shadow groups known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations now controlling the flow of state and federal transportation dollars into those U.S. metropolitan areas serving populations over 50,000. These organizations are advised by staff and contracted consultants —all unelected but preparing plans, approving projects and spending your tax dollars as they see fit.

A few years back, even the MPO in my small Indiana town received almost a million federal stimulus dollars to lavish on a transit center for a four-bus system so inefficient it consumes over six tax dollars to transport every rider. Your town probably has a similar example. Will Rogers observed that fraud is the inevitable result when two people get together to decide how to spend another person’s money. It is the inevitable outcome of government-erected mechanisms like MPOs.

Meanwhile, the same consultants who were party to the financial disaster that was Boston’s Big Dig are pitching a billion-dollar transit program in Indianapolis, flashing their history of being big players promoting expensive transit projects with expert credentials that supposedly qualify them for any project anywhere.

Bridgegate should be our warning. I fear it won’t be. An army of professional political spinners whose investment horizon extends only to the next election will misdirect our attention. The incident, in the end, may only divide the nation further while failing to alert us to the crisis at hand — the ongoing, systemic failure of a vital segment of our economy, transportation.

Thomas Heller, a resident of Columbus, is the principal and founder of a consulting firm specializing in transportation, public finance and land economics.