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There’s a hole in the bucket — and the overpass

Remember that old folk song, “There’s a Hole in the Bucket”?

In the song, “Henry” tells his “dear Liza” about a hole in their bucket, and no matter how she asks him to fix it, he always comes up with an excuse. He can’t use a straw because it’s too long. He can’t cut the straw because his ax is too dull. He can’t sharpen the ax because the stone is too dry. And he can’t fetch water to wet the stone because there’s a hole in the bucket. Honestly, I don’t know what Liza sees in that guy.

On April 19, there was a hole in the Scott Hamilton Drive overpass over Interstate 30 in Little Rock. It was just a small one, and unlike Henry, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department repaired it quickly. But the fact remains that concrete was falling onto the interstate below, and for a few hours, you could look up from beneath that overpass and see sky above. Interstate traffic was forced to be routed into one lane, costing the economy far more than the materials required to fix the hole.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department assures us that the overpass, built in 1961, is in good shape. Still, this incident was a reminder of the deficiencies in the state’s and nation’s infrastructure. According to the Highway Department, Arkansas has $23 billion in highway needs over the next 10 years but only $6 billion to pay for them, even after voters passed a half-cent sales tax for highways last year. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the nation needs to invest $1.7 trillion between now and 2020 in its surface transportation system. Current estimated funding is about half that.

And it’s not just highways and bridges. Across the country, all those things that make modern life possible – dams, airports, inland waterways – are in need of modernization and repair. There are water mains still being used in Washington, D.C., that were laid prior to the war. The Civil War.

Unfortunately, although just about everybody knows there is a hole in the bucket, no one has been able to do anything about it. Years behind schedule, Congress finally passed a highway bill last year known as MAP-21, but it funded highways for less than two years and did little to address the nation’s long-term problems. Among the major challenges: As cars become more fuel-efficient but road material gets more expensive, gas taxes aren’t keeping up with the cost of maintaining the nation’s highways. And yet elected officials refuse to raise those taxes, find other revenue streams, or cut funding elsewhere for fear of losing their next campaign.

You see, Liza, the stone is too dry.

Closer to home, Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, during this year’s legislative session proposed gradually transferring sales taxes from new and used cars from the general fund (the state’s big pot) to highways. The bill had 66 co-sponsors in the House along with Barnett and 23 in the Senate – more than enough for passage. But it bogged down in committee because of opposition from Gov. Beebe and under pressure from other groups that get money from the government, such as colleges and universities. Opponents around the Capitol started calling it the “highway robbery bill.”

It can be hard to spend money to maintain the country’s infrastructure for the same reason it’s hard to buy new tires for our cars – because things often seem to work fine before we spend the money and often don’t seem that much different afterwards. You go under the overpass, and you get to the other side. You flush the toilet, and what’s in the bowl goes away.

Until some day, when the wastewater system needs major repair or it’s not safe to go over or under the overpass. When those things happen, we all learn the same lessons that Henry should have learned – that it’s easier and cheaper to maintain an asset than it is to fix it after it’s broken.

Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is brawnersteve@mac.com.

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