Editorial: A bailout for bridge?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 4, 2008

The I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River has provided quite a bit of stimulus in recent years, stimulating accidents, stimulating traffic snarls and stimulating endless complaints from drivers who regularly have to navigate the narrow, aging span north of Salisbury.
Could its replacement now help stimulate the economy as part of an infrastructure improvements package being debated in Congress?
Perhaps, but don’t put out the “road construction ahead” warnings just yet. This funding idea is in the wish-list stage right now, with many potential speed bumps and detours ahead. It could end up being a bridge to nowhere. But it’s one possible scenario that emerged this week as the nation’s governors, including Mike Easley, went to Washington to press Congress to include a sizable chunk of infrastructure projects ó about $136 billion worth ó in any future economic stimulus spending. According to the Charlotte Observer, N.C. House Speaker Joe Hackney, who participated in the Washington discussions, cited the I-85 bridge as one of the projects on North Carolina’s potential wish list of 300 possible projects.
What’s intriguing about the idea is that, if Congress approves, it could bring a much faster fix than other methods that have been discussed, such as securing federal and state money through the conventional funding process, making the bridge replacement part of a comprehensive state bond package or going the toll road route.
Taxpayers experiencing sticker shock over the sums already committed ó more than $700 billion in the initial bailout to shore up credit markets, with automakers also pleading for help ó may blanche at the notion of spending $500 billion on another stimulus plan, as now appears likely. Opponents include several Republican governors, such as South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who argue that another federal economic stimulus package will make things worse, not better. In regard to money spent on infrastructure improvements, however, it’s important to distinguish between a bailout and an investment. The I-85 bridge is just one example of the nation’s enormous infrastructure needs. We’re eventually going to have to foot the bill, one way or the other. A surge of repair and replacement work would help create jobs and spur spending at a time when that’s vitally needed. It also could help ease the budget crunch for states such as North Carolina that are staring at another round of cuts and belt-tightening. Hackney estimated that, without federal assistance, the state could be looking at a shortfall ranging anywhere from $800 million to $3 billion.
Whether a replacement for the Yadkin River bridge will actually emerge from all this remains to be seen. But it’s a stimulating idea to consider the next time you’re caught in a bottleneck waiting to cross the river.