A bridge too far

And so our latest true-life, made-for-cable-TV disaster unfolds.

Remember the talk about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina? Remember those SUV-eating sinkholes in Brooklyn? Remember the report that $120 billion a year is wasted on road repairs because our highways are decaying? Remember when the electric grid caused a power blackout that affected millions? Remember the Hawaii dam that collapsed, killing seven people? How about the analysis that 13,000 highway fatalities each year occur because of congestion or poor maintenance and design?

The catastrophe in downtown Minneapolis caused by an arterial bridge collapsing in rush-hour traffic is the latest in unheeded warnings that, physically, the United States is in bad shape.

We Americans who have rejoiced in — and boasted about — the grandeur of our cities, the comfort of reliable electricity, the wonder that has been our national highway system, the easy readiness of tap water and our can-do eagerness to build the best have been blind about growing fissures in that very infrastructure.

The nation’s engineers thought they made this clear in 2005 when an American Society of Civil Engineers report card gave the country an overall grade of “D” after an examination of 15 areas, including the safety of bridges and dams, the adequacy of runways and water pipes, the modernization of schools and the design of highways.

The report, saluted as a national wake-up call, estimated the cost of modernizing the nation’s infrastructure at $1.6 trillion. A more realistic cost is $800 billion over a five-year period, but even that has not been budgeted for by the White House or Congress.

(Some, of course, will note that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports we have spent $500 billion on the war in Iraq and probably will end up spending $1 trillion there.)

The last time President Bush talked publicly about infrastructure, he promised that “beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.” He did propose $600 million after 9/11 to protect critical infrastructure for public transit agencies, railways, seaports and energy facilities, but the American Public Transportation Association said a minimum of $6 billion was needed.

Bush also has a National Infrastructure Advisory Committee. It has made no news since its 24 members were appointed in 2002.

The day after the Minneapolis disaster, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the 40-year-old bridge rated 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability, 120 being the best. “This doesn’t mean there was a risk of failure, but if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions,” he said.

The nation’s mayors and governors have been complaining for years that they cannot repair crumbling roads and bridges on their own.

In 2003, the mayors issued a plea to Congress and the White House to fund more than status-quo maintenance of their “congested metropolitan highways,” insisting that transit demands exceeded their resources and “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, tunnels and rails are urgent reminders of the transportation infrastructure crisis that is jeopardizing America’s prosperity.”

But too often infrastructure projects are decided by politics, not need. One man’s economically essential vision is another man’s Bridge to Nowhere. And there have been outrageous cost overruns, such as millions overspent on Boston’s Big Dig.

Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., says his state needs $250 million in federal funds to replace the collapsed bridge. The Commission on Public Infrastructure at the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that one-fourth of all U.S. bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete.

The nation’s overall problem of disintegrating pipes, bridges, ports, dams, rails and roads must not be handled on a piecemeal, first-come, first-serve basis. Long-range plans and timetables set by experts have to be heeded.

There must be commitment from the White House and Congress. Money has to be spent wisely, not just because, say, one senator from Alaska has more clout than others.

The experts argue we must invest now in a national trust fund to shore up our infrastructure or we will pay later because our economy will decline and more modernized countries will overtake us. They say it costs as much as four times more to fix a broken system such as decaying water and sewer pipes as it does to replace it, meaning we can spend a dollar now or four when the pipes or the dams or the bridges collapse.

But these days, our national motto seems to be: “We’d rather pay later.”

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)


  1. JoyfulC


    To it, I would add, is it any different to die by an act of terrorism than by an act of neglect by politicians playing with our tax dollars? I think it is. I think it’s a far worse tragedy for a taxpayer to die in a bridge collapse, when it was avoidable and when the dollars were there for it all along, but were just diverted elsewhere.

    The sad thing about the “military complex” brand of butter is that we may have been sold damaged goods there. For many years, the military has come to rely increasingly on hi-tech gadgetry and systems over basic weapons and equipment to protect personnel. Earlier this year, China showed us just how simple it would be to toss a wrench into our cogs.

    So for all the money we’ve spent, what do we have to show for it? Our infrastructures are crumbling inside our borders, and it’s now obvious that, if push came to shove, it’s unlikely our military could defend our borders anyway. It’s not going to be easy, but if the US wants to regain its former glory, some different choices are needed immediately.

  2. keith

    No doubt, the tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis has sparked yet another round of the age-old “guns vs. butter” debate. When I saw the pictures of twisted steel and concrete rebar, the first thought that popped into my head was, “We seem to be able to afford dumping trillions of dollars down a “rat hole” for an illegal war in Iraq, but we don’t seem to have enough money available to fix our crumbling highway infrastructure.”

    However, in reality, the argument is not about “guns vs. butter”, but, rather, “butter vs. butter”. We heard the same wails of protest over the Apollo space program in the 1960s (as in: “Why are we spending all that money on the Moon when poor people are still starving in Appalachia”?)

    The truth is that not one nickel of the tax money we spent on the Apollo program was ever spent “on the Moon”. It was all spent right here on Earth, to pay the salaries of the thousands upon thousands of US workers who built, tested, launched and then controlled all the infrastructure as well as the actual hardware and software that flew on those missions.

    Likewise, despite all the horror stores we’ve heard to the contrary, very little of the money we are now pouring down the “rat hole” in Iraq is actually being spent there. Rather, most of those untold billions (trillions?) of dollars in tax money are being spent right here in the United States of America. It’s being used to keep hundreds of thousands (millions?) of workers in our “Military Industrial Complex” in this country gainfully employed. In fact, in an age when most manufacturing jobs are being sent off to Mexico, India and/or China, our own defense industry is booming…literally…. by keeping millions of US manufacturing workers here at home firmly on thousands of payrolls.

    So, rather than asking the “guns vs. butter” question, we probably OUGHT to be asking ourselves which brand of “butter” we want to fund. That is, when all is said and done with the tax dollars that are being used to keep a large segment of our population gainfully employed, what do we want to have to show for it when we are all finished?

    Since the dawn of time, the primary purpose of any military organization has been to kill people and break things. And, right now, our US defense industry is cranking out untold arsenals of guns, tanks, personnel carriers, airplanes, bombs missiles, ammunition and ships to do just that in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe.

    But, when all is said and done, what’s left after these things are used (or used up) is a lot of death and destruction, not to mention untold numbers of our own soldiers getting killed or maimed. And that doesn’t even take into account the untold numbers of non-combatant men, women and children who, unfortunately, just happen to be in the way while we are doing so.

    Now there are those who will vehemently argue that keeping the people in our nation alive and free is the principal purpose of our military. I certainly won’t argue that point. But making the leap to equating that basic thought with indefinitely underwriting the quagmire our leadership has now gotten us into in Iraq with our hard earned tax dollars simply doesn’t compute. In fact, it’s not even close.

    On the other hand, if we were to now divert more of the resources we are wasting while continuing to underwrite the “no-win” quagmire in Iraq into rebuilding our crumbling highways in this country, we could still keep a large, “non-exportable” workforce in our nation gainfully employed, as well as the rest of the “non-combatants” (us!) who regularly have to travel over that crumbling infrastructure ALIVE.

    What’s more, our country would also have many more lasting and useful monuments to that labor…rebuilt highways and bridges…. with far more short AND long-term benefits to our nation…to show for it.

  3. geyser

    Continuing to add upon Keith’s Excellent comment’s appearently one collapsed bridge will not move Congress or this president into doing the right thing. Since the past catastrophe’s didn’t make either flinch, there’s no reason this one will. The reason there has been no movement to repair America’s infrastructure, life has become cheap. At one time when a common event took place with a loss of life, something was done about it. With the Iraq War raging on, people dying everyday, a few more won’t make much of an impact on our law makers and certainly not on the president. A final factor that will be the excuse used by all, no money. The States have already made it known, they do not have the funds to even repair any of the crumbling structures. They have already asked the Federal Gov’t to foot the bill. The White House has spent money as if it grows in the president’s backyard down in Crawford. It continues to spend at the same rate, throwing it into the streets of Iraq.
    The talking will linger on for a limited time and then stop before anybody notices.

  4. jgw

    If memory serves me correctly (hopefully) George Bush Senior, when president, made the country’s infrastructure one of his priorities and actually got taxes passed to fix things. Obviously the money was spent on ‘other’ things. CNN ran a story, this morning pointing out that everytime a piece of pork is passed then something planned for, and necessary, does not get funded.

    Our current set of deadbeat politicians (all parties) do not like fixing things, whether its the military, the roads, corruption, the tax system, healthcare, or anything else. To actually fix things they just might have to upset a political contributor and, obviously, they are NOT going to do that. There is simply not enough publicity in it to get them re-elected. We are about, however, to see a feeding frenzy of politicians getting on the ‘fix infrastructure’ band wagon and money is going to flow like water. We might even get some more taxes to pay for it! (along with endless news stories pointing out how incompetently the money is being spent).

    My own thought is that we need to un-elect EVERY sitting politician. Right now what we have is a group that is VERY adept at getting headlines and playing politics. Its never going to change until they ALL get to leave office. Anytime a politician plays the ‘experience’ game simply vote against. Its that ‘experience’ that has put us into the current hole which none of them want to get out of. Remember, the current administration is, arguably the most experienced we have ever had!

    Its pretty obvious that the Republicans have put us into a terrible place, and they have proven that they are poster children of gross incompetence. On the other hand the Democrats, voted in after many promises, have proven that they too have completely failed and are unable to do little more than pass inadequate legislation, shoot off their mouths and play the same old tired political games. Vote ALL the rascals out! (as a group they sure as hell have proven that they do NOT have the welfare of the country as a first priority).

    john white
    Port Angeles, WA

  5. RSW

    As to John White’s comment, I have a simple motto, which I have followed for years: