I come to bury the Peace Bridge, not to praise it.
The statistics around the Peace Bridge, otherwise known as Farrell’s Folly, are legend. The construction overruns, the time overruns–the initial crossing of over $25 million versus a fraction of that for a competitive walking bridge design are all well known.
Personally, I would argue and could argue that the bridge ought never to have been built. It’s not needed. There are ample pedestrian bridges nearby. Who needs a piece of work valued at over $25 million?
However, I am in the minority, the Peace Bridge in Calgary is without a doubt a wonderful civic structure which will serve for decades as a fine piece of Spanish engineering and design in the heartland of the prairies. Everyone I know loves it and approves of it, regardless of the cost. All-important media comments are invariably approving. This is true even before the bridge was built, when all we had was pretty pictures and processes.
All of this points to a distressing obvious and transparent conclusion which cannot be denied. The good citizens of Calgary would have paid for this bridge without having to pass the court.
The universal approbation and popularity of the bridge even before it was built is ample testimony to the fact that the public wanted it and therefore the public would have paid for it. There was absolutely no need to tax the people of Calgary to pay for this Spanish engineering masterpiece. Rather, there is every argument to suggest that we could have instituted a large public subscription for this masterpiece to allow those who could contribute to contribute more and those who couldn’t afford less to contribute less.
Because it was taxpayer funded, single moms struggling to make ends meet have found that a portion of their tax dollars have gone to fund this masterpiece which they might or might not enjoy. At the same time, wealthy art aficionados with a yearning for Spanish architecture and engineering have paid much less than they would have been prepared to pay. The fact that this is taxpayer funded has resulted in a complete and utter failure of appropriate allocation of burden to fund this masterpiece.
Additionally, any moral pride that the city might have taken in installing this masterpiece has been blunted, if not diluted completely because it was not a voluntary desire outcome, but rather a forced tax bureaucratic outcome. How much better and sweeter would the installation have been if it had been funded completely by a public subscription? How much more desirable would be the opening ceremonies have been if everyone knew that the public supported this initiative–supported it not just with votes but with actual dollars?
And buried within all this; if there have been a public subscription to fund the bridge with donations, this would have had a derivative effect, implicitly including the federal and provincial government as co-funders of the bridge, because the tax deductions would have been charitable deductions and necessarily including the other levels of government in the donation support.
There is sometimes talk about a ‘one cent fund’ for art. The promoters of this advertise it as a one cent sales tax would be directed to a sinking fund to purchase art, judged meritorious by the promoters of the fund, of course. This moral failure ought to be dismissed and replaced with a public donation campaign, for the same reason that the Peace Bridge ought to have been funded by public subscription. The burdens are more appropriately placed and the rewards are more generously shared. There can be no moral virtue, no sweetness of judgment in a tax-funded initiative. That can only be found in voluntary, not compulsory, initiatives.
Charles Adams, in his landmark taxation book published almost two decades ago, highlights the importance of large charitable requests as a signal to a good government and tax system. Charitable requests for public subscription for major installations such as bridges and roads are a clear sign of a healthy government structure. Taxation to fund such niceties is equally a sign of failure.
I come, therefore, not to create this bridge, but to bury it; to point out its moral roots are flawed. I admire and wonder at its engineering and design attributes; I marvel and wonder at the paucity of comments on the process of funding.
Images under Flickr CC license
Gretchen Mahan: Statue of Julius Caesar
Thank you for visiting my…: The peace bridge downtown Calgary Alberta over the Bow river.
yaybiscuits123: 1974 Canadian Penny (Reverse)