As I sit here high above the Nimitz Freeway, members of my favorite Caltrans maintenance crew are busy patching a 1-by-1-foot hole in the highway’s bridge over High Street.
How appropriate that I just got off the phone with Steve Heminger, who had just flown in from Washington, D.C.
Heminger, who by day is executive director of the Bay Area’s very own Metropolitan Transportation Commission, was tapped in 2005 by Nancy Pelosi to serve on the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.
That hole in the Nimitz is but one of many such holes in freeways around the nation, and the money to fix them — permanently — is dwindling to nothing.
Heminger’s panel, chaired by U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, just finished hashing out how this nation might be able to fix such crumbling transportation infrastructure. Funny how “crumbling” and “infrastructure” always seem to go together these days.
The problem, as many transportation people have explained over and over again, is that it’s always cooler to build something than it is to keep it from falling down.
The High Street Bridge is a case in point. About a decade ago, it was judged unfit to withstand a major earthquake. Lucky for the Bay Area, Caltrans was able to scrape the money together to finally get that project moving and potentially done within the decade to come.
But there are a lot of highway bridges, like the ill-fated I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed Aug. 1, and they all need to be maintained. And there are 35-year-old BART cars that need to be replaced, railroad lines so shabby that Amtrak trains have to go over them slow enough to spot washouts in time to stop.
And that lack of maintenance costs more than dollars, even though much heat has been generated over the commission’s recommendation to increase the federal gasoline tax by 25-40 cents per gallon.
“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of controversy about the revenue recommendations,” Heminger told me, noting that most commission members agreed to that even if Peters and some of her fellow Republicans dissented.
The commission’s report recommends reforming the way the federal government spends transportation money, starting with doing away with the 108 federal programs now charged with revenue consumption.
“I was shocked to learn myself, even though I work in the profession,” that there were so many programs, Heminger said.
The commission is recommending that spending be focused by a mere 10 new programs, focusing on such national priorities as moving freight and relieving congestion.
“We are under-investing in our system, but we are still spending a considerable amount of money,” Heminger said.
That means less money on pork projects like freeways through remote Congressional districts or bridges to nowhere and more on critical transportation bottlenecks, regardless of the mode of transportation.
“We shouldn’t have to wait for bridges to fall down to do something about the problem,” Heminger said.
But it often happens that our democratically elected representatives don’t choose to act on these things until they do fall down.
In the www.politico.com blog this week, I read a commentary that recounted the history of Congressional blue-ribbon panels headlined “Why does Congress outsource its work?”
The piece by Ryan Grim maintains that even the best of these panels write reports that are quickly gathering dust on some shelf. But the infrastructure panel, with few members of national prominence, seems doomed to irrelevance.
Heminger sees it differently, or why would he have make all those trips to D.C.?
“We’re not going to know for some time,” he said, whether the panel’s work will amount to anything. “This year’s an election year and the current (transportation spending authorization) bill doesn’t expire until next year.”
For the moment, at least, Heminger believes change is in the air.
“I think there’s a lot of consensus around the country that it’s time for a change,” he said.
A half-century ago, President Dwight Eisenhower convinced Congress to approve the Interstate Highway program. Today, Heminger believes, Americans could be ready for the next big thing.
(NOTE: This item was post-dated to correspond to when I actually wrote it, then neglected to post it properly. I know this violates several rules of blogdom and journalism, so please forgive me.)
Staff Photo of Interstate 880 northbound backup because of chunk of concrete falling out Jan. 18 by Alison Yin.