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Will Rogers sometimes tucked little moral messages into his one-liners. For example: "I'd rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge than the one who sold it."
The gullibility of anyone who thinks it's possible to buy the Brooklyn Bridge is an old punch line, but today the joke is on us. In these weird times of privatization fever, buying bridges is no longer considered preposterous, and old Will would be appalled by the crass morals of both the sellers and the buyers in these increasingly common transactions.
The Brooklyn span has yet to be sold off, but similar public assets all across the country have been, and many more are up for grabs -- an estimated $100 billion worth of highways, bridges, airports, and other public properties could be transferred into corporate hands in just the next two years. Among those already gone or actively being considered for privatization are Chicago's Skyway commuter route, the city's entire downtown parking system, and Midway Airport; in Indiana, three major throughways (a 157-mile toll road across the state, a new Illiana Expressway, and a section of the I-69 NAFTA highway) and the state lottery; Virginia's Pocahontas Parkway and Dulles Greenway; the 537-mile Pennsylvania Turnpike and Philadelphia International Airport; New York's Tappan Zee Bridge; a vast 4,000-mile network of toll roads across Texas; Colorado's Northwest Parkway; Alabama's Foley Beach Expressway bridge; the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel; and, in New Jersey, the NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway.
What's at work here is a convergence of gutless politicians, right-wing ideological fantasizers, conniving investment bankers, and raw corporate greed. What has drawn them together is the incandescent, transformative, blinding, neon-green force that rules American society: money.
A deliberate defunding
Let's start with the lack of money. Since the 1980s, national, state, and local politicos of both parties have abjectly failed to meet their responsibility to maintain our country's essential transportation infrastructure. They've had the political backbone of slugs, unwilling to speak an obvious truth: It takes tax revenues to have a first class public system. But forget first-class -- our roads, bridges, airports, and other systems have been allowed to deteriorate even as traffic has steadily increased, so American transportation isn't even second class. In this same time span, our "leaders" have squandered trillions of dollars from our public treasury on special tax breaks for corporations and the rich, as well as on senseless wars and boondoggles, while letting the basics of government service slide. Now we're at a crisis point. The federal highway system (established by that wild-eyed, tax-and-spend liberal, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1956), is the chief national source of money for building and repairing roads, bridges, and mass transit systems. It is financed by an excise tax that has stood at 18.4 cents on a gallon of gasoline since 1993. Today, that's only about 6% of what it costs for a gallon of regular gasoline -- down from the 10% rate of taxation that Ike and Congress established when the fund was created.
In 2005, when Congress was about to replenish the dwindling trust fund with an increase of 4 cents per gallon, George W killed the hike with a veto threat. As a result, a fund with a $23 billion surplus when Bush came into office will be broke when he leaves, running a deficit of nearly $2 billion in 2009 and $8 billion the next year.
If you're an antigovernment, privatization zealot (like Bush and his top Transportation Department appointees), those are joyous numbers, for they mean that state and local officials are more vulnerable than ever to your pitch that public assets are better placed in corporate hands. For years, such corporate- funded, right-wing think tanks as the Reason Foundation have dreamed of the moment when they could impose their ideology on the public -- and here it is.
"Trust us," they're cooing into the ears of governors, mayors, and other officials who are looking at massive transportation needs, yet are too shackled to money interests even to mouth the words "tax increase." These sirens of corporatization sing softly, "We have the perfect, painless solution. All you have to do is to turn over that toll road (either by sale or long-term lease) to GlobalGigantica, Inc., which will pay a pretty penny for it. You'll get money for your public treasury, you'll lose your migraine headache, the magic of free enterprise will deliver greater efficiency and lower costs, and an adoring public will shower you with rose petals, hosannas, and votes."
Such rosy nonsense is now official U.S. policy. Last year, the Department of Transportation produced a plan known as the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion, which really should be called the Strategy to Induce Corporatization. Under this scheme, DOT officials are actively working as proselytizers of privatization, aggressively pushing states to pass laws that help corporations take over chunks of their public transportation infrastructure. To move this ideological surge along, DOT has drafted sample legislation for states to rubber-stamp, and more than 20 states have passed such laws.
From "The Hightower Lowdown," edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, July 2007. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of "Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country And It's Time to Take It Back."