Tax the deadbeats, fix the bridges

    In August of ’07, after an interstate highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis and turned 13 commuters into corpses, I called the disaster “a metaphor for our twisted national priorities.” And now we have another interstate bridge collapse, this time in Mount Vernon, Wash., where three motorists took an involuntary swim (and survived) last Thursday night.

    Same metaphor, different year.

    Given the fact that the Federal Highway Administration says 11 percent of all bridges in America are “structurally deficient,” and that we spend only a fraction of what’s needed to shore them up properly, and that we spend so little because we’re chronically allergic to collecting the requisite tax revenue, it’s a miracle we’ve had so few disasters. But it’s only a matter of time before we have another one.

    Granted, a “structurally deficient” bridge isn’t imminently unsafe; according to the official definition, such a bridge requires “significant maintenance, rehabilitation, or replacement.”

    Decide for yourself whether that sounds alarming. But bear in mind that the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis was categorized as “structurally deficient.”

    The I-5 bridge in Washington state was actually listed in a less urgent category, “functionally obsolete.”

    And care to guess which state in the union has the highest percentage of “structurally deficient” bridges? The state that ranks first out of all 50?


    We’re No. 1!

    Yes, folks, 26.5 percent of the state’s bridges — 5,906 out of 22,271 — are officially in worse shape than the bridge that just collapsed out west. (New Jersey, on the structurally deficient scale, ranks 27th.)

    Yet still we drift from inevitable disaster to inevitable disaster because we’re too short-sighted and cheap to fix what needs fixing.

    As one Republican congressman admitted six years ago after the 35 Minneapolis deaths, “People think they’re saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is, you have catastrophes like this.”

    The problem is traceable in part to the ideological gridlock in Congress. Natch.

    As one transportation expert told ABC News the other day, “Infrastructure has always been non-partisan, [but] the reason it’s contentious in Washington is because morning prayers are contentious in Washington.”

    The 18-cent federal gas tax, which pays for interstate transportation repairs, hasn’t been raised in 20 years — because Republican politicians are beholden to their conservative base, and Democratic politicians are terrified of being tarred as tax-raisers.

    That’s a shame, because the American Society of Civil Engineers says in a new report that we need another $8 billion a year to repair and upgrade our deficient bridges. (To put that seemingly high figure in perspective: During the George W. Bush era, congressional Republicans sat mute while Bush waged his farcical war in Iraq by spending an average of $10 billion each month.)

    Take a bite out of Apple

    If a federal gas tax hike is a nonstarter, clearly the revenue would have to come from somewhere. So here’s a wild thought: Why not compel U.S. corporations to pay their fair share of taxes?

    Presumably, you’ve heard the latest revelations about Apple, maker of miracle products (including the laptop on which this post is being typed) and notorious tax deadbeat. Apple has reportedly avoided tens of billions in U.S. taxes by devising an accounting trick called the “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” which routs profits through Irish subsidiaries, Holland, and the Caribbean.

    Accountants say that hundreds of other U.S. corporations have been following Apple’s lead, although it appears that General Electric has done just fine on its own initative — given the fact that G.E. paid no U.S. taxes in 2010.

    There it is, your bridge repair money at work.

    Which is too bad for us.

    A Senate report says that U.S. corporations are currently hiding $2 trillion overseas. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation says that if we fully taxed the corporate profits being stashed abroad, we’d swell our revenue coffers by $42 billion a year. Which would go a long way toward securing the safety of motorists who currently take 210 million trips each day across a structurally deficient bridge.

    But will Washington crack down on these corporations? Only in an alternative universe, where corporations don’t wield a disproportionate share of power in Washington, where corporations don’t game the laws to make it easier to hide their profits abroad.

    So until that miracle day arrives when all the corporate lobbyists close up shop, and when all the corporate-financed political groups unleashed by the Citizens United ruling agree to cede their clout, here’s my best advice to fellow motorists:

    Don’t cross a bridge too far.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal