Newspapers this week are filled with dire accounts of the state of American bridges. Unsurprisingly, the federal government is the worst offender at not keeping its property in repair.
The administration’s files show that the biggest laggard in replacing such faulty structures is the federal government. It owns 1,322 of them. The National Park Service alone is responsible for 914 badly maintained bridges, making it the biggest laggard’s biggest laggard. Park Service officials don’t deny it. "We actually focus our money on bridges at the sacrifice of our roads. But we have a $169 million backlog of bridge work and a $3.26 billion backlog on roads. By backlog, I mean money we need and don’t have," says Mark Hartsoe, the Park Roads Program Manager.
What a strange coincidence that the newspapers are full of tales of bridges needing billions of dollars worth of repairs while the Congress debates a tax cut. Certainly the stories of commuters plunging to their deaths are not an attempt to scare Americans away from tax cuts.
For the sake of argument, suppose that there is indeed a health care, er, bridge repair crisis in America.
There is a solution at hand: allow private companies, clubs, and individuals to sponsor or buy bridges in exchange for tax credits on their federal, state and local income tax returns.
The reason I propose a tax credit, rather than a tax deduction, is that it is only fair to give a $1 credit for $1 spent when the $1 that is spent is being spent precisely to save the government the trouble of spending $1 of tax revenue on bridge repair.
For those unfamiliar with the way taxes work, a tax deduction reduces the amount of income on which you must pay taxes. Thus, if you made $100, and are in a 20% tax bracket, you would owe $20 in taxes. With a deduction of $10 for the $10 you spent on bridge repairs, you would owe tax on $90. Your tax bill would then be $18. You save $2 in taxes if we treat bridge repair expenses as a tax deduction.
But if we treat them as a credit, and you again made $100 with $10 spent on bridge repair, you would only owe $10 in tax. The $10 you spent on bridge repair is credited against the $20 in taxes you owe. You save $10 in taxes if we treat bridge repair expenses as a tax credit.
There are those who would likely say "That isn’t fair. It’s greedy to want a credit. The government should just give you a deduction."
A tax credit is eminently fair to all parties involved (as fair as anything can be in the U.S. tax system) because you are spending your money on bridges precisely so that the government does not have to tax you to spend your money on bridges. In other words, since the federal government owns the property, the federal government is receiving $1 in benefits for every $1 you spend. Why not give you credit in taxes for the $1 you paid to the government to fix a bridge?
It makes no logical sense for the government to deduct $1 from your income if you spend $1 on bridge repair. The reason for this is that if you spent $1 to fix a government-owned bridge, you’ve already given the government $1. The logical thing to do is to credit that $1 against what the government claims you owe.
(The same rationale applies to money spent on private education, charitiable contributions, and the like. If the government gives deductions for certain expenditures on the theory that "you are saving the government the trouble" of doing something, then a deduction is the wrong way to treat such expenditures. Tax credits are the logical way to go).
The illogical alternative is to say "You gave us $1, so we’ll just pretend you made $1 less this year, and you can pay taxes on that amount."
I write "you" because there is no reason that individuals could not join together in clubs to keep their local bridges in good repair. This would not only keep the bridges in good shape, but would foster a sense of community.
If it is the job of the federal government to keep its 1,322 bridges in good repair, then there is no reason not to adopt the plan I am suggesting.
If anything, private persons and corporations will spend less and do a better job, as they will have an incentive to economize — it’s their money, after all.
The Park Service "needs" $169 million for bridges and $3.26 billion for roads. (The word "needs" is in quotes because it is a safe bet that the jobs can be done more cheaply). It may sound scary to say so, but $3 billion is chump change if you consider the possibilities for advertising and good will generated by corporate and club bridge sponsorship or ownership.
Finally, for those who would dismiss the need for good bridges as a boring, irrelevant issue, think again. The Washington Times relates that:
Three years ago, in Woodsville, N.H., a 6-year-old girl was hit by a car at the entrance of the town’s historic old and failing bridge. Traffic on the posted span had been limited to one car at a time, with no heavy vehicles permitted. The nearest emergency team and ambulance were two miles away on the bridge’s opposite side. The ambulance had to take a 20-minute detour to reach the child. She died just before the ambulance arrived.
Where is the Über-Safety Secretary, Rosie O’Donnell? If guns should be outlawed to save "just one child," what’s the excuse for not working for safer bridges?
The mainstream media would have you believe that the death of this young girl proves the need for more taxes. Wrong. The child’s death shows the need for safe bridges, however those bridges happen to be funded. The point of this article is that we do not need taxation to pay for better bridges.
Taxation is governed by statute, i.e. by laws passed by legislatures. The US Tax Code is written by the Congress. The same is true for states and localities: they set their taxes by passing laws. If enough people are convinced of the idea, safe bridges can be a reality. Only voters stand in the way.
Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.
© 2001 David Dieteman