Sunday, May 27 , 2018, 3:02 am | Fair 56º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: Bridges and Toilet Paper

Toilet paper and bridges are two essential items you might not notice until they are missing.

A household on its last roll of toilet tissue means someone has to make an emergency trip to the store. Santa Barbarans and particularly Montecitans have noticed of late that bridges can similarly not be done without.

Destroyed bridges can mean your home is unreachable, town is inaccessible, and your job may be hours away instead of minutes.

Who pays for each of these? Even the strictest socialists likely would agree that TP is a personal household purchase — you pay for what you use. If it were a “free” public good, after all, every house with teenagers would be TP-ed with regularity.

The costs to replace missing or damaged bridges are enormous and not as easily allocated. Some bridges can be paid for or at least maintained by tolls, but the vast majority are destined to be public goods paid for out of federal, state, and local taxes.

Even the strictest libertarians would likely advocate for publically financed bridges, if only to avoid toll stations over every creek culvert.

The nation’s bridges and other infrastructure are rapidly deteriorating. Sixty percent of the U.S. interstate highway system was built before 1970, and the Highway Trust Fund struggles with solvency. Since the 1980s, weather-related power outages are up to 10 times more frequent.

The last two annual report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers rated U.S. infrastructure a D+. Their recent report recommended — actually urged — spending $2 trillion within the next decade to improve infrastructure in support of the nation’s overall economy.

Dollars spent preventatively could reduce money spent on recovery. In 2017, $300 billion in federal dollars were spent on natural disasters.

Against this backdrop in needed maintenance, President Donald Trump announced his intention last week to rely on state, local and private investment to provide for most infrastructure.

Trump described a $1.5 trillion deal for infrastructure, but the effect on cities and states is actually a negative $40 billion. His proposed 2018 budget alone included $240 billion in cuts to infrastructure, while the $1.5 trillion proposed funding is spread over 10 years.

This overall budget slash is a problem by itself, but there are additional devils in the details.

The priority for dollars would be projects with the highest percentage of non-federal funding, which means a project’s economic benefits to the public would be secondary at best.

There are appropriate opportunities for public-private partnerships, but relying on private money means supporting only infrastructure that can earn a return. Projects like debris-flow dams or rebuilding schools, roads and bridges in poor communities get short shrift.

A 2017 report by the Environmental Protection Agency assessed the country’s spending need to adapt roads and railways for climate change at $280 billion by 2100.

Yet, the president’s plan also proposes reducing requirements for environmental permits, and fails to address critical climate-change issues at all.

Interestingly, Trump did offer his support for raising the gas and diesel tax by 25 cents a gallon in support of roads, highways and bridges in a February 14 meeting. He even offered to provide leadership to get it done.

However, the White House didn’t confirm the tax support; hard to know if the idea has been flushed.

Maybe Trump should instead propose a tax on toilet paper. With the messes he’s creating, a toilet-paper tax could produce enough revenue to repair the nation’s infrastructure and prepare for climate change as well.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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