Will Santa bring a new bridge over troubled economic waters?

Jim Waters Bluegrass Beacon

December 15, 2013

Once upon a time, the Intermarine Company of Ameglia, Italy landed a multimillion pound contract to build huge ships for Malaysia’s military.

It offered great economic opportunity for a small community.

The company enthusiastically set about building the ships to sail the River Magra to the sea and then on to Malaysia. But when they got ready to sail, they realized that the Colombiera Bridge sat so low across the river that not a single one of those new vessels could pass underneath it.

The company offered to knock the bridge down and build a new one after the ships passed, but the town adamantly refused – having grown more attached to the bridge than to the contract’s opportunity.

So on launch day, the people of Ameglia gathered, as one writer put it, to “admire their new ‘navy!’”

Once upon a time, large, prosperous telecommunications companies made plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in a small state known as “Kentucky.”

Such an investment would create real economic growth by greatly expanding access to high-speed internet for Kentuckians who live in scenic but technologically underserved rural areas.

Small businesses would spring up in the economically deficient Appalachian region and attract clients worldwide; children in poor districts would receive access to Advanced Placement courses their schools could not afford and the health care industry could be more innovative and provide better care.

Once upon a time, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill that updated archaic laws and changed the burdensome regulatory atmosphere that forces telecom companies to waste resources on providing outdated services rather than investing in technology that provides better, faster wireless services.

Alas, the majority in the House of Representatives once again failed to act.

Once upon a time, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear dusted off his office’s bully pulpit and pressured his own party to quit treating these issues with the urgency of a legislative hobby and get serious about reforming the state’s pension, education, labor and telecom policies and getting state government out of the private sector’s way so it can do what it does best - create economic growth.

Oops. Wrong story.

Instead, Beshear once upon a time promised to “find” more money in the already squeezed state budget to increase funding for broadband connectivity.

But once upon a time, other states’ bright, forward-thinking and inspiring leaders figured it out: If we update our laws and show telecommunications giants that we’re serious about getting more of their business, the increased economic activity will eventually produce the kind of tax revenues that could help even government do more.

If that happened in Kentucky, Beshear might not need to “find” the money he wants to expand that four-lane Mountain Parkway he rightfully says needs to happen. The funding might already be there.

Heck, the telecom giants once upon a time even worked with lawmakers - in a bill for the 2014 legislative session - to tear down low-hanging, outdated bridges standing in the way of great opportunities and build new ones later, if necessary.

The law allowed anyone in a community of less than 15,000 people to keep their current service - even if it’s an old copper-wire antique phone setup that will soon be obsolete anyhow. The bill even offered to allow people in Kentucky’s rural communities to return to their old service if they try a new one and don’t like it.

One of these stories doesn’t end happily. About 30 years after Ameglia, Italy rejected the Intermarine company’s offer to tear down the bridge and rebuild, the bridge collapsed in a 2011 flood.

Not only did the town fail to enjoy the economic benefits of the new ships, it lost out on a new bridge, too.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.