Out in the private sector, things change in the blink of an eye – while government struggles to keep up. And, in fact, government doesn’t have much reason to keep up.
A change in technology may offer the opportunity to save money. The private sector jumps at a bargain. For a bureaucrat, saving money may mean a reduction in his department’s budget, fewer government employees, and a loss of power.
But sometimes, outside forces overwhelm even the most cautious bureaucrat – to force a change. Transportation funding is an example. State governments are struggling with a simple fact: Better fuel economy is good news for drivers but means fewer gas tax dollars to build and repair roads.
Some propose toll roads as a solution. But anyone who lives near I-77 north of Charlotte can tell you toll roads also create problems of their own.
So maybe it’s time we looked at changing a few obsolete regulations.
Years ago, when we had to cross a small stream and the size didn’t require a bridge, we used a round pipe or a square pipe called a culvert. Back then we just laid the pipe on the stream bottom knowing the water would rise up to get through then waterfall out the other end.
It was a solution that worked until the environmentalists pointed out it created an environmental problem – by creating barriers for fish and other water creatures who couldn’t safely navigate the smooth concrete bottom, much less, climb the wall at either end.
So the environmentalists proposed a solution called stream mitigation. What that meant was simple: Every time the state blocked a stream with a culvert, it had to go out and find a degraded stream somewhere else and improve it to offset the harm done by the culvert. It’s hard to argue with mitigation as a theory but hard evidence of a benefit is less obvious.
And one thing is certain, mitigation costs a lot of money – almost $800 per linear foot of impacted stream. For a steam crossing requiring a 300-foot culvert, that means mitigation costs of $233,000. That adds up to NC spending over $5 million per year for mitigation. And that’s $5 million that could have been spent to build regular roads instead of toll roads.
Over the last 20 years the private sector found a better way to cross streams. They simply started burying culvert bottoms so that the stream flowed though unchanged. The creek critters could freely move from side to side.
It was a win-win solution and you’d think, surely, the regulators in Raleigh would have responded by not requiring mitigation where better technology could be used.
No. They didn’t. Apparently the regulators still live in 1995.
It gets worse. Mitigation in not just expensive, it’s complicated.
To speed up highway projects engineers started going around the need for mitigation by building bridges instead of using culverts.
That did make projects simpler and faster.
And much more expensive.
Short span bridges cost twice as much as culverts, last half as long, and add more tens of millions to the taxpayer’s bill.
This has gotten silly. With a little effort, and innovation, we can kill three birds with one stone: We can cut government spending, protect the environment and build more roads.