(I'm still working on uploading video from last night's candidates' forum to the Madville Times YouTube channel. I'll post, embed, and comment on those videos as soon as the whole collection is up!)
I'd like to connect two seemingly disparate issues: bridges and our high school. (I don't think this would have fit in our two-minute speeches last night. I beg your indulgence.)
School board candidate Jennie Thompson accepts the argument that it would be cheaper to do all of the proposed renovations and additions to our high school at once. I'm inclined to agree with her: whatever repairs and upgrades the high school building needs, however many thousands of seats we want to include in a new luxury gym, all of that would probably be cheaper to build as one package, right now, with one contractor. Doing renovations in phases, with possibly different bidders coming back and coordinating smaller projects in different parts of the building in different years, would likely be less efficient.
I've heard some people compare the situation to renovating your own house. If you're having Bev and Larry Even remodel your kitchen, you can probably save a little money by having them redo the dining room while they're at it rather than waiting and asking them to come back next year and set up shop in your house a second time.
But with the high school, we're not just talking adding some nice cabinets and pretty tile. We're talking about avoiding the immolation of our precious children (a dread alarm sounded by Becky Brown at last week's school board meeting and by candidate Thompson at last night's forum... though interestingly, no one ever discusses the increased fire hazard of packing 2500 people into a gym that could burst into flame at any moment).
So let's analogize the school renovations to a more dire problem than your kitchen: let's talk bridges. According to a new report by Transportation for America, South Dakota has the fifth worst bridges in the nation.
20.3% of South Dakota's bridges are structurally deficient. If you cross five bridges today, there's a heightened chance that you might not cross one of them when you come to it. A bridge in Beadle County collapsed just last September, not long after a school bus crossed it. I'd say that poses as much peril to kids as a fire in a school.
So South Dakota has 1193 bridges out of 5890 bridges that could use fixing right now. In Lake County, 13 of our 79 bridges are structurally deficient. That's 17%, a bit better than the state average, but still a danger to the average of 2711 vehicles (including school buses) crossing those hazards every day. (Who knew the commute was such a daring adventure?)
Fixing these bridges to ensure public safety is unarguably a priority. As the city commission candidates made clear during last night's forum, infrastructure is a top concern for Madison. And I would bet that we could fix those thirteen dangerous bridges in Lake County more cheaply if we did them all at once, right now. Hire a bridge crew, let them bring all their workers and heavy equipment hear, order all the dirt and steel and concrete they need in one big buy, and do all the work in one fell swoop. That's got to save money, right?
But according to the Madison Daily Leader, in the face of this imminent public peril, with the clear possibility of saving money by doing a massive and immediate upgrade of all of our deficient bridges, our city and county have scheduled seven of those thirteen structurally deficient bridges for replacement over the next six years.
Now I haven't asked our city or county officials why they are waiting to fix these bridges. But I'll bet this piecemeal approach boils down to fiscal reality. Our city and county can maybe only afford to fix one or two bridges at a time.
Our local bridge situation is highly instructive. Solid bridges are not a luxury. Over a hundred times an hour in our county, somebody driving to school or work or the park is risking a sudden dip in the creek. We could save money and possibly lives by fixing all thirteen bridges at once.
But our city and county leaders are apparently making hard choices and saying, "You know what? If we burn up all of our tax dollars right now on fixing all thirteen bridges, we won't have money left for snow removal, or the jail, or other vital public functions."
Jennie Thompson and other gym supporters want it all for our kids. Even fellow school board candidate Shawn Miller, who casts a more austere eye on school budgeting than I do, said last night he wants it all. But as Miller said, it all comes with a price tag. Whether we're talking school renovations, a new luxury gym, or solid bridges, sometimes we just can't afford to do everything at once. We have to accept our fiscal limitations and do the hard work of setting priorities.