"How long will it take," I thought, as I watched coverage of the collapsed bridge outside Minneapolis, "before someone blames President Bush?" It turns out, not long.
As divers attempted to locate possible victims submerged in the murky waters of the Mississippi River, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: "I think we should look at this tragedy that occurred as a wake-up call for us. We have — all over the country — crumbling infrastructure, highways, bridges, dams, and we really need to take a hard look at this." Calling it "the right thing to do" for the infrastructure and the economy, Mr. Reid said, "For every billion dollars we spend in our crumbling infrastructure, 47,000 high-paying jobs are created." Mr. Reid also implicated the White House, "Since September 11 , we have taken our eye off the ball."
How bridge maintenance became the job of the federal government requires explaining. How many people know the federal government played virtually no role in building the first coast-to-coast highway? The Lincoln Highway, an improved, hard-surfaced road spanning 3,400 miles from New York City to San Francisco, was conceived and built in the early 1900s, and relied heavily on private and corporate donations for funding. Private-sector visionaries, with the assistance of state and local taxpayers, established the Lincoln Highway in 1913 — three years before the first federal highway funding (1916), and 12 years before the numerical route marking of the first interstate systems (1925).
Entrepreneur Carl Fisher, who conceived the idea for the highway, built headlights for cars. Wanting motorists to drive at night, Fisher pushed for improved roads, which ultimately led to paving of the then mostly dirt roads.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on the grounds of national security, sought and received congressional funds to construct the federal Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. But Eisenhower also touted the economic benefits of the highway — thus corrupting and expanding the Framers' intent of the Commerce Clause in the Constitution.
We now have a federal highway system. But why does the federal government — rather than the states — continue to bear the responsibility of its maintenance?
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels realized his state lacked funds to maintain the Indiana Toll Road. For $3.8 billion, the state entered a 75-year lease with a consortium of an Australian company and a Spanish company. As a result, Indiana no longer faces billions of dollars in road maintenance. In exchange, the investors intend to raise tolls for those using the roads. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley did something similar. He leased the Chicago Skyway — an eight-mile elevated highway — for 99 years in a $1.8 billion deal.
At one time, James Monroe, our fifth president, felt the Constitution disallowed federal toll collection, federally funded repairs and federal jurisdiction over the multi-state Cumberland Road. In 1822, Monroe cast his only veto against such a bill, though his home state of Virginia stood to benefit.
According to Monroe's biography on the University of Virginia's americanpresident.org, "As the United States continued to grow, many Americans advocated a system of internal improvements to help the country develop. Monroe thought this a good idea; he believed that the young nation needed an improved infrastructure, including a transportation network to grow and thrive economically. However, [Monroe] did not think that the Constitution said anything about the authority to build, maintain, and operate a national transportation system. ... The issue came to a head when Congress passed a bill in 1822 to repair the Cumberland Road, or National Road, and equip it with a system of tolls. ... Monroe vetoed the bill, however; it was his contention that the states through which the road passed should undertake the setting up and collecting of tolls because Congress lacked the authority to do so." (Three years later, on his last day in office, Monroe signed a bill authorizing extension of the Cumberland Road, leaving some constitutional scholars scratching their heads.)
Today, federal highway bills are passed every six years or so, replete with pork projects. The last one, passed in 2005, included snowmobile trails and horse trails, and a documentary about infrastructure in Alaska. Some of the money never gets to critical highway maintenance.
So Americans continue the schizophrenia of demanding that the federal government keep us safe against our enemies, while simultaneously demanding a federally funded welfare state that saps time, attention and money from the very business of keeping us safe.
Well, we can always blame President Bush.
Larry Elder is a nationally syndicated columnist, a radio talk-show host and author.