How to cut the budget
President Reagan says he is determined to make substantial cuts in the federal budget which Mr. Carter sent to Congress just before his unintended return to Plains, Ga.
I join with all taxpayers in wishing Mr. Reagan every success in this budget-cutting task. But I am thankful that it is he, not I, who has the job of trying to do it.
Last week in this space I was writing about the plans for a new bridge in the Rhode Island community where I live. We are going to have a new bridge, whether we want it or not, but the kind of bridge we get will be determined by the availability of federal funds. Right now Uncle Sam would give us 80 percent of the cost of the new bridge, providing it came up to federal interstate highway standards. Those standards are written by the highway construction lobby in Washington to provide maximum work and profit to the highway construction industry.
The highway construction industry begins with the mills which roll out reinforcing steel for the roadways and the bridge steel for the bridges.
It goes on from there to the purveyors of concrete and to the companies which have the massive equipment necessary for building superhighways and superbridges. It includes companies which can move such things as bridge girders from fabricating plant to intended location. It ends with the unions of specially trained workers on such projects. All of them have an interest in building the most expensive highways and bridges possible, and in having plans for enough of these jobs to keep the whole structure of the industry fully employed for a long time ahead.
President Reagan would not be able to balance the federal budget by deciding arbitrarily to shut off federal funds for our new bridge. It would save perhaps locally. That would mean a more modest bridge tailored to our actual local needs, not tailored to the preferences of the national highway construction lobby.
But Mr. Reagan could save quite a lot of money by simply calling a halt to federal funding for all local public works projects. The proposed figure in the current federal budget for highway projects is about $8 billion.
The estimated federal budget deficit for fiscal 1981 is $55 billion; for fiscal 1982 it is $27 billion. An $8 billion saving would help a lot in cutting either of these deficits. And of course there are plenty of other "public works" type projects. Post offices do not function more efficiently because they have hand-carved classic Greek columns of Vermont marble or of Indiana limestone on their Main Street faces, but they certainly provide more jobs and higher profits to a lot of contractors.
Coming back to our new bridge, there is another angle. People traveling to Cape Cod from New York City can now go the whole distance on an interstate highway system running through Providence, Route 95. Through traffic does not require an alternate superhighway system crossing our island, but if there were an alternate system running over our island there would be a lot of nice extra profits for the highway construction complex. And they have already got three arguments for doing just that.
One is the four-lane Newport Bridge, built for an estimated annual average daily traffic load of 30,000 vehicles, but carrying currently only an average of 9,000. It feeds into the local two-lane road network at either end. In other words, it is a beautiful big bridge which isn't going anywhere, unless or until it becomes part of a major four-lane, interstate highway system. There is a four-lane section beginning 13 miles to the north which feeds into the existing interstate system. There is a four-lane interstate system about 30 miles south of our bridge.
If "our new bridge" were built to interstate standards, there would be another argument for completing the system by filling in the 13-mile gap on our island, and the 30- mile gap between our new bridge and Route 95.And at that point we are talking about "real money."
Mr. Reagan could make a real dent in the estimated 1982 federal budget deficit just by saying a firm no right now to any more federal money for finishing that extra, unneeded, and, locally, largely unwanted interstate connection.
In the process Mr. Reagan would greatly please those of us in Jamestown who don't relish the idea of a four-lane superhighway chewing up great swaths of our pleasant countryside. But of course he would infuriate the bridge steel builders, the concrete purveyors, the highway contractors, and the unions who benefit from building elegant unneeded bridges.
The real question is whether Mr. Reagan will have the political clout to be able to defy the lobbies in Washington who have made the federal budget the monstrosity which all good Reaganites say it is. The people who will scream the most when he tries will not be plain people. They will be the industries which fe ed so happily from the public trough.