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If they can’t even get a bridge repair right …

In its recent session, the Minnesota Legislature doled out $250 million in favors to a mega-famous retail center that doesn’t pay property taxes. Thanks to the insistence of one legislator, it also allocated $9 million to please birders and bicyclists.

The Star Tribune’s Rochelle Olson reported on this in a story called “Mall of America expansion funding has $9 million bridge to cross.” Both the Mall and the bridge are within the City of Bloomington. According to Olson’s account, “Before the Mall of America gets one state dollar for a $1.5 billion expansion, Bloomington must agree to replace the historic Old Cedar Avenue Bridge either through restoration or a new structure.”

No doubt you know what the Mall of America is, but what about the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge? It is, in brief, a 90-year old piece of rusting metal that could fall into a back channel of the Minnesota River at any time now. John Weeks, a local man with a passion for documenting Minnesota bridges, has the details on the Long Meadow Bridge (which is the actual bridge still standing), as well as the Old Cedar River Bridge (which has been torn down), the Cedar Avenue Bridge (whicih replaced both the Long Meadow brige and the Old Cedar river bridge), and the Cedar Avenue Bicycle Bridge (an attachment to the Cedar Avenue bridge that takes bicyclists and birders only partway on their trip from Dakota County, in the north, to Hennepin County, in the south).

Bike enthusiasts, including the Minnesota Off-Road Cyclists (see this discussion for starters) have been advocating for a replacement bridge for some time, to replace what served cyclists and pedestrians until the bridge was shut for good about 10 years ag

As a cyclist and policy expert, I have mixed emotions about this. The cyclist in me would certainly appreciate having the bridge repaired (if possible) or (more likely) replaced. The taxpayer in me wonders about the economic value of the project, and whether a toll system might be feasible. The policy expert in me says that I could argue that if tax money must be used to support recreational pursuits, it should come from the Legacy Amendment funds.

Instead, the money for both the MOA and the bridge will come from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area Fiscal Disparities Program, a redistribution scheme meant to take money from more prosperous cities and give it to less prosperous ones.

So is Bloomington a poor city? Not exactly; it’s one of the wealthiest in the state. Rep. Lenczewski, a Democrat who represents the city in the Minnesota House, says the fact that the city isn’t poor is the reason it should get the money. Or to quote from Olson’s article, “Lenczewski noted that Bloomington gives more than it gets from the fund.”

Another irony is that the Mall of America is going to get tax relief — even though it has yet to pay any tax itself, beyond what it captures for itself in tax increment financing — in an arrangement similar (as I understand it) to the one just extended to the Mayo Clinic. The rich get richer, not through honest work serving their fellow man, but through politics.

As for the bridge, it has been closed for 20 years, and bikes and pedestrians for 10. It has lead paint, and environmental regulations pump up the cost (and some people who would turn this rusting piece of metal into an historic landmark), making removal impossible and fixing it up even more expensive.

Perhaps, though, bicyclists and birders will rejoice soon enough, thanks to a political establishment that picks winners and losers, and then seeks to modify its meddling.

But then again, perhaps nothing will happen. The effort to restore a bicycle/pedestrian bridge is complicated by the mix of government agencies that have to give their approval. These include the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), the City of Bloomington, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The City of Bloomington owns the bridge, as an unwelcome gift from the State of Minnesota. Its long-term objections may have been overcome with enough cash from the state. But the DNR and FWS may not be as easily mollified. Then again, perhaps $9 million will be enough to satisfy everyone.

A bridge shut for 20 years. The costs of a multi-million dollar project inflated by regulations. Buck-shuffling and disputes among public agencies. A resolution (perhaps) achieved in a package deal to reward the already-rich and connected. And to think, all of this concerns something as basic to the functions of government as a bridge.

Think of what’s happening with your child’s education or your health care.

(First published by Center of the American Experiment)