Risk Versus Cost

The Politics of Safety

Why have years of expert warnings failed to mobilize citizens and their representatives to fully fund an overhaul of transportation infrastructure? Bill Lunch, chair of OSU’s Department of Political Science, has devoted decades to observing and analyzing Oregon’s political and public-policy scene. The professor, who is well-known to listeners of Oregon Public Broadcasting, recently shared his perspective with Terra magazine. Below is a portion of that conversation.

TERRA: If governments exist to keep people safe and functioning as a community, infrastructure seems to lie right at the heart of governments’ raison d’etre.

BILL LUNCH: In a modern, industrial economy, that’s right. Transportation and communication, along with provision of electricity, sewer, water–these are all basic public goods. Before the 18th century, people living in small, insular communities didn’t need big transportation and communication networks.

TERRA: If infrastructure is so critical to commerce and community cohesiveness, why have we fallen so far behind in infrastructure maintenance?

LUNCH: Most lawmakers know very well that we’ve got a very serious problem, and that we’ve got inadequate resources to deal with it. Congressman DeFazio has been warning for years that we’re just not spending enough on repairs, including reinforcing bridges so they’re less likely to fall in the drink in case of an earthquake, which is the biggest concern on the West Coast. The leaders are trying to lead. But they can only push so far if the public isn’t supportive. That’s the nature of democracy.

TERRA: So do we have to wait till bridges collapse before the public takes notice?

LUNCH: Not quite, but pretty close. Ours is a system that responds to crisis. Back in the ‘40s, for instance, Americans were very resistant to getting into World War II. It took the bombing of Pearl Harbor–a catastrophe of enormous proportions–to change public opinion. Most people have jobs to do and children to raise and leaky faucets to fix. They’ve got other things to worry about than whether the roads are falling down. It’s not the kind of issue that gets the juices flowing among the general public until the bridge falls down.

TERRA: But if you ask people if they want safe roads and bridges, very few say “no.”

LUNCH: Sure. But essentially, people don’t want to pay for the public services they’re getting. This is the oldest story in the book. When public opinion pollsters show Americans a list of 100 services–transportation, education, environmental protection, public health, campgrounds, parks–and say, “Do you think the government should provide more, less or the same amount of these?” people say “more.” Then a few minutes later, the pollsters ask the same respondents, “To pay for these services, do you think your taxes should be higher, lower, or the same?” and they say, “lower.” People want to have their cake and eat it, too. It’s human nature.

TERRA: The anti-tax movement has really gotten a foothold in Oregon, starting with Measure 5, the property-tax rollback of 1990. State services are still feeling its effects nearly two decades later, right?

LUNCH: Measure 5 was sort of like dropping, not just a rock but a very large boulder, in a relatively small pond. The waves that went out in terms of public finance were enormous. Oregon is a very low-tax state, ranking 44th in the nation for combined local and state taxes. Lower taxes equals fewer services.

TERRA: Proponents of unfettered free markets such as the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, are calling for privatizing roads and paying for them with tolls. Do you see a trend toward more user fees on Oregon highways?

LUNCH: There has been more of a history of toll roads Back East on the New Jersey Turnpike and so forth. But here in the West, the toll idea is getting a lot of cultural and political pushback.

TERRA: If infrastructure is so vital, yet taxes and tolls are so reviled, what’s to be done?

LUNCH: Timing is everything. In Washington state where they have lots of bridges, the legislature passed a 9-cent increase in the gas tax in 2004, to be phased in over several years. Opponents referred it to the voters. The assumption of all the analysts was that the gas tax increase in Washington was toast. New taxes? Forget it. But the question was put to the voters in November 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina. What Katrina did was show people, very dramatically, that we are social animals and we live with each other for better or worse. And if you have a catastrophe and the government doesn’t respond well, which it did not, there are horrible consequences for lots and lots and lots of people. It was a very sobering object lesson. Well, surprise, surprise, the voters sustained the gas tax–and it wasn’t even close. The increased tax will provide them with a substantially larger pot of money, including very significant work on bridges up there.

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