Friday, August 17, 2007

Local Bridges Falling Down

By sheer coincidence, I happened to be typing at my computer only three blocks away from the Interstate 35 bridge when it collapsed in Minneapolis two weeks ago. I heard the crash, but had no idea what it was until a few minutes later I heard sirens which did not ever seem to stop, as well as numerous helicopters overhead. When I turned on the radio, I learned what had happened.

It’s an odd circumstance for a journalist to be, by accident, at the site of a local event which becomes the number one news story in the nation, and among the top stories in the world for several days. I knew that it would be only hours before many of my colleagues would be in town to cover this story, and of course, they did come with so many satellite trucks that it resembled the site of a national political convention.

Bridges are by their nature important parts of almost everyone’s daily life. There are many tens of thousands of them, and we cross them many times a day without thinking about it.

Bridges are not only what we use every day for transport, they are by their nature powerful symbols we use in our language as metaphors for how we understand, and how we relate to others.

It should be no surprise, then, that the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis would lead to an avalanche of commentary and interpretation about political and economic matters not directly related to the disaster.

Eusebio Val, Washington correspondent for the Spanish daily La Vanguardia and an astute observer of the United States and Europe, wrote me a few days later from his home in Barcelona (where he was vacationing) that many Europeans were interpreting the Minneapolis bridge collapse as a metaphor for their belief that America’s power was declining in the world. He does not necessarily agree with that, and I certainly don’t, but it illustrates how easily a local and single incident can be transformed into something else.

Back in the United States, it did not take very long for local political partisans, mostly Democrats, to contend that the bridge collapse was the result of the Republican governor of Minnesota not agreeing to raise taxes in the recent legislative session. The legislature is overwhelmingly controlled by Democrats who have called for dramatically increased taxes.

The same theme was echoed by national Democrats, and bills were immediately introduced to raise the national gasoline tax to pay for bridge maintenance and repairs.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a conservative Republican who had previously and, I think, gutsily resisted tax increases and prevailed, suddenly announced that he might call a special session of the state legislature to raise the gasoline tax, even though Congress had speedily approved and President Bush signed a bill for $250 million to pay for a new bridge.

The local public apparently did not agree. A poll taken at the height of emotion about the disaster showed overwhelming opposition to an increase in the gas tax. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, a political moderate, wrote an Op-Ed in one of the local daily newspapers suggesting that new taxes were not the solution, but a new approach was, citing three recent bridge repairs in record time at lower cost using private companies and incentives. Newt Gingrich wrote an Op-Ed in the other local daily suggesting the same thing.

Mr. Pawlenty is a very smart guy, and I can’t imagine him going forward with a gas-tax increase. Instead, using a new free-market approach with incentives, he and local officials could get the new bridge built and in operation in time for the Republican National convention next September in St. Paul. What a statement he and Minnesota could then make — welcoming delegates and the national media with a ceremony to open the reconstructed bridge in less than a year and under budget.

With so many bridges in the United States, many of them in various states of disrepair, an actual collapse is a very rare event. This suggests a variation of the axiom that “All politics is local” as “All bridge collapses are local.” Indeed, there is evidence that the I-35 bridge, with bumper-to-bumper traffic the day it collapsed and several trucks reportedly parked on the bridge, loaded with many tons of crushed stone to be used for the repaving then underway, was the result of a significant weight overload compounding its already known structural weaknesses.

Yet knowing the actual cause will have to await the investigation now underway.

Bridge safety is very important, and every bridge in American should be safe and secure. We should also use a bridge disaster like this one as an opportunity to reconsider how we maintain our bridge infrastructure (and how to do that without just throwing in new taxes as a substitute for innovation).

But let’s also be careful about trying to contrive a tragic local event into something it is not.


-This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on August 17th, 2007.

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