Wilcox Tunnel work not a federal duty

Wilcox Tunnel work not a federal duty

February 17th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

A quick look at Chattanooga's Wilcox Tunnel makes it clear that the site needs some work.

The tunnel, which was completed in 1931 and carries Wilcox Boulevard traffic through Missionary Ridge, has leaks and poor ventilation.

In addition, the tunnel is too small to accommodate large vehicles such as fire engines and buses.

So there is general agreement that there are problems. What should the city do? Well, Wilcox Boulevard is a local road, so in principle it is a local responsibility to fund improvements or, as is also proposed, to build a new and better tunnel.

But there's one major hitch: Improving the existing Wilcox Tunnel and building a new one would be extremely expensive: in the neighborhood of $42 million! As you might imagine, in these tough economic times -- and even in better times -- the city doesn't have $42 million in "petty cash" just lying around to pay for the work.

So what is the solution? We're afraid it may not be the wisest one. The city plans to apply anew for a $25 million federal grant to help pay for the project. The city would be on the hook for the remaining $17 million of the cost.

Our criticism is really not of the city's plan to seek money from Washington. The federal grants are going to be given out around the country one way or the other.

The trouble is that Washington should not be funding clearly local transportation projects in the first place. You can search the United States Constitution from beginning to end, and you will not find direct or implied authorization for the federal government to be the source of funding for obviously local road and tunnel improvements.

It would be different if an interstate or other federal road were at issue. Then Washington could reasonably be expected to fund upgrades, expansions or new construction. But this is a local project. And if taxpayers from other states are required to help pay for Chattanooga's projects, you may rest assured that Chattanooga taxpayers are being required to help pay for projects in those states as well.

Why not simply reduce federal taxation to begin with, so more money stays in cities and states, which then would have greater ability to fund their own projects and wouldn't have to rely on the luck of the draw with federal grants?

Why involve Washington in decisions about what work should or should not be undertaken on state, county or city roadways? Do we honestly think federal bureaucrats are more competent to make such decisions than the local engineers, officials and taxpayers who regularly travel those roads?

And with our national debt exceeding $15.3 trillion, does anyone believe Washington should take on still more unconstitutional functions?