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The economics of ‘free’ money

The building of the new rail trail bridge displays the risks of spending “free” money arbitrarily. While the rail trail bridge’s initial construction is funded by a grant, the structure will cause the citizens of Elkins to incur many more costs that are not covered in the years to come.

Those costs could be justified if the utility (the benefits the structure provides to the city) outweighs those overall costs. There is no utility provided by the bridge being built: it does not make it easier to get from one place to another. It dead-ends into a hillside. This bridge is not going to be a tourist draw. It is not an architectural marvel like the New River Gorge Bridge, which draws tourists to Fayetteville from I-79 to I-64/I-77, saving 45-plus miles.

All bridges must be continually maintained to guarantee safety, including the physical structure and the retaining walls that have been installed to support the structure, otherwise they will fall. This will be a continuing cost that will be borne by the Elkins citizenry. It cannot be delayed or ignored, or the structure runs the risk of falling onto U.S. 219. When the structure falls into disrepair (as all structures do), the costs of removing or replacing the structure will also be borne by the Elkins citizenry.

Citizens are encouraged to discuss the forecast cost of ownership versus the return on investment of the residual maintenance tax dollars with their elected representatives. From looking at the bridge, one can surmise that the benefits will never outweigh the trailing costs of ownership.

This bridge will likely cost more in safety, as well. Bad actors can easily target unsuspecting drivers from its vantage point, dropping eggs, rocks or other detritus onto U.S. 219. This will require periodic policing, constant maintenance of deterrent fencing, possibly enveloping the entire deck structure and may require remote cameras to minimize the possibility of assaults in the secluded area.

Furthermore, one should ponder where these funds truly originated. Was the grant funded by tax dollars extracted from other municipalities, either within West Virginia or across the nation, whose citizens have no account for what these tax dollars are purchasing? Or was the grant monies derived from donations to a given cause? Either way, the utility of the bridge means that these funds have been wasted on a useless structure and could have been better used elsewhere. Could the funds have been used to repair and/or replace current infrastructure within the city? Or maybe they could have funded medical research. We cannot know the good that could have been achieved by allocating them more wisely or never extracting them from the citizens who originally earned them. This is a hallmark of spending other people’s money.

Following the rail trail path to its destination, making Elkins accessible to riders, will require more work to allow users to cross Harrison Avenue near Scottie’s Restaurant, possibly requiring a new light or crosswalk that will be within one block of the main Elkins interchange, potentially snarling traffic. Also accessing the bridge heading north bound from Elkins will be dangerous for riders. The bridge entrance is halfway down Cut Hill and will require extensive braking to make the turn safely.

A much more cost effective and safer solution would have been to create a bike path running parallel to the east side of U.S. 219 through Cut Hill. It would have given the riders the option to use Graceland Drive to access both Davis & Elkins College and the City Park without ever traversing a major roadway. Access to downtown Elkins would have been available directly at the main interchange with Harrison Avenue relying on the existing traffic light. This approach would have had minimal cost of ownership, would cost much less to maintain in the years to come and would have provided marginally better utility as it would have at least provided access to Elkins without traversing a steep grade.

Free money isn’t really free. There are always hidden costs that are either not imagined or is purposefully omitted. To better understand the unintended consequences of government spending and the hidden costs that are never addressed by political leaders, I encourage reading Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in One Lesson.”

Scott A. Godwin

Pasadena, Maryland