What A Bridge Cannot Fix by Owen Bailey

Owen Bailey
March 2018


“Rural America is in trouble . . . It’s shrinking and aging, as college-educated young people leave small, isolated towns for new opportunities.”

  • Sarah Jones, New Republic

Why do some people believe, feel, or think a bridge could help Kent County and our rural community? My guess is hope. Hope that a bridge could be the easy solution. Build it and the people, jobs, and prosperity will come to a county that has struggled for a generation. But as previous infrastructure projects have shown us, this type of growth is short lived and does not change the underlying problems we face.

Like the rest of rural America, the population of Kent County is shrinking as our educated youth leave for greener pastures with the promise of better jobs and better quality of life. Their loss is felt as Sarah Jones from the New Republic writes, “We must also acknowledge the impact their out-migration has on those left behind.” More specifically, those who do not have the education, resources, and job opportunities in the modern work force.

This is the challenge we face with the possibility of a new bay bridge from Tolchester to Baltimore just on the horizon. Though a bridge would create access to more opportunities in the urban area, there are limits as to whom would benefit, and consequences for the region.

Today cars are a major household expense when you factor in car payments, maintenance, insurance, gas, upkeep, tags, registration, and tolls. There is no indication that these expenses will decrease in the near future, and continuing our investment in a transportation system so heavily reliant upon cars will further hurt our economy.

Many residents simply cannot afford a car, and according to census data from 2015, 27% of households in Kent County either have one car or no car at all. With no alternative transportation on the Eastern Shore, if you don’t have a car you do not have options or opportunities, and a bridge will not help you. Cars and roads are a poor investment as their maintenance and upkeep suck resources that otherwise could be applied towards schools and job training.

Many in Kent County suffer from generational poverty as they lack the basic education/jobs training to compete in an increasingly shifting economy. This is part of the bigger picture and must be addressed in both the short and long term if we want to strengthen our communities and economy. A bridge that could be completed in 10 – 12 years, or longer, will not help them. And the clock is ticking as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 begins to take effect.

According to an NPR report, The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act favors buying machines over hiring workers. As Chris Arnold writes the bill “doesn’t create new tax incentives that specifically encourage companies to hire workers and create jobs . . . But it does expand incentives for companies to buy robots and machines that replace workers.” This will directly impact lower and middle class families who are going to suffer unless they receive the training they need to meet the demand of the next generation of jobs. They don’t need a 10 billion dollar bridge that is decades away.

The best investment we can make in Kent County is supporting our people and our small businesses, both of which are essential to our growth. Quint Studer from Strong Towns explains that small businesses have “created two out of every three net new jobs since 2014. But small businesses can’t do their important work without the support of the community they call home.” He goes on to outline 10 things small businesses need to thrive, which I’ll go into more depth in another article.

Our fight must then be on multiple fronts with investments in high-speed internet, jobs training, alternative transportation, housing, and small businesses, some of which Kent County has already begun with the installation of dark fiber internet. We also have many great small locally owned businesses. We should be supporting them, and making more investments in the people of this county, to decrease our dependence on the urban areas. Only then can we begin to chip away at the long term struggles of Kent County, and built a stronger future.