Wednesday, August 08, 2007


The I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is disturbing on many levels. The personal, of course; I've driven across that bridge several times, a friend of mine drove it every day, and one of my girlfriend's church friends was best friends with someone killed in the tragedy. But more than that, there is the sense that this particular incident is indicative of a larger decay in American society. If one bridge can collapse, why not more?

It's interesting that the I-35 bridge was located in Minnesota, a state with a very good record of infrastructure maintenance; the Minnesotans are a very civic-minded people. I would have thought a collapse like this more likely in a place like Illinois, where the state of the state's infrastructure defines the word decrepitude. I hate driving through Illinois; the roads are in horrible shape, and the bridges worse. It wouldn't surprise me to wake up some morning and find that the entire El system had turned to dust overnight, the crumbling streets having swallowed tracks and trains whole. But we can only dream.

The fact that something like this happened in a state like Minnesota makes it even more disturbing. But it's far from the first of these infrastructure collapses; in recent years, witness also the levees in New Orleans, the steam pipes in New York City, and other less well-known incidents. Things fall apart; the center will not hold.

The 20th century in America was a century of construction -- massive, impressive projects, from the Hoover Dam to the Empire State Building to the entire interstate highway system. The 21st century, however, will be a century of maintenance; all those massive constructions have to be maintained, or they'll fall apart. And, as the I-35 bridge demonstrates, things can fall apart quite quickly, and with tragic results.

The problem is, maintenance isn't sexy. No congressman wants to sponsor the "White River Parkway Repaving Bill," when they can put their name on the "Ted Stevens Bridge to Nowhere Bill." And it's not just our politicians; the public doesn't like to spend money on boring stuff like this. In fact, the public doesn't want to spend money on much, except perhaps big-screen TVs; they want the services, but without the taxes. It doesn't work that way.

Unless we start spending on maintaining our infrastructure, we'll see more tragedies such as the I-35 bridge collapse. Somehow we have to get our minds (and our wallets) around the benefits of spending to maintain the things we have, rather than buying new and sexier things.

Experts say it will cost $188 billion and take several decades to repair all those bridges similarly deficient to Minnesota's I-35 bridge. That seems like a lot, until you consider the $1 trillion spent on the Iraq war. Which is the better investment -- $188 billion to keep our country intact, or five times that amount to destroy a foreign country? I know which one I'd choose.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree

No comments: