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.)