Friday, May 23, 2008

Minneapolis' Bridge to Somewhere

Almost everyone remembers the bridge that collapsed a year ago in Minneapolis. It was the number one story in much of the world for a few days, and a major political story for weeks and months afterwards in the U.S.

Like most events of this kind, public interest in this story faded, to be replaced by other national and international disasters, events and controversies.

I have not been able to forget it, however, because I live only three blocks from where the I-35 bridge once stood, a bridge I had used several times a day for years, and a bridge I would want to be replaced as soon as possible to avoid a severe long-term dislocation of my ability, and the ability of hundreds of thousands of other Minnesotans, to move about this large metropolitan area.

Today, and for the past several months, workers have been toiling around the clock to build the new bridge. Much of this new bridge is now visible, with only the section in the middle, the part over the Mississippi River, not yet constructed and in place. But even that final part should begin to be seen soon.

When the bridge collapsed, many opinions were expressed about how it happened, and how its replacement should be built. The conservative Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty and his administration were attacked for neglecting the problem by local Democrats, especially those in the legislature and who control both houses of that legislature. The public, however, was cheered by the generally quick and professional response by the governor, other state and local officials of both parties, and the federal government which pledged to pay for a new bridge.

Some disagreement about the design of the new bridge arose, particularly about whether to spend an additional $50 million to make the new bridge capable of having a future light rail train cross it in addition to automobile traffic. At the same time, Democrats also advocated raising state gasoline taxes to pay for other infrastructure repair. At first, Governor Pawlenty agreed to these tax increases, but others joined the debate, suggesting that the traditional notion of raising taxes, put forward in the emotions of the disaster, were not necessarily wise. Even Newt Gingrich wrote an op ed in the St. Paul Pioneer Press calling for the governor to eschew new taxes, and to employ the private sector to build the replacement bridge promptly, using cash incentives for getting the job done ahead of deadlines. I also wrote an op ed on
these pages suggesting that higher taxes was not the priority, but that getting the bridge replaced was. I even suggested in that op ed that if the bridge design and contract process were done quickly and well, it might be possible to have the new bridge open in time for the Republican National Convention which will take place in St. Paul the first week of September, 2008. This latter point was received with some skepticism if not derision because it was felt by many that such a large project could not be finished in such short a time.

From my close vantage point I can report, however, the such a target date is now not out of the question. The company overseeing the bridge construction was given significant incentives to finish the job ahead of schedule,and the current target date is the middle of September, only about two weeks after the convention begins. It is at least reasonably possible that construction work could pick up those two weeks.

A lot of persons were responsible for this. Not only Governor Pawlenty but local and state officials streamlined the process after it threatened to bog down in recriminations and elaborate new bridge proposals. Both Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar and Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman, and their staffs, worked closely with each other to speed up federal funding. President Bush and the Democratic Congress responded quickly and generously.

This is the way public projects can work well. Yes, it takes money, sometimes lots of it, to respond promptly and and effectively, but unless the contractural arrangements allow for incentives for better-than-expected results, and penalties for results that fail to meet quality and deadlines, the market place cannot do the job the public expects and deserves.

Public officials of both parties, from the president of the United States to the mayor of Minneapolis, whose job it was to get the bridge replaced quickly did effectively use the business market place and the cooperation of organized labor, and the result is one more, but lately too rare, example of how things can work best, and with accountability.

We can argue about how much is necessary to spend on public works, and how we pay for them, but there always will be those projects almost everyone will agree need to be done. Unlike that now-cancelled "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, we are going to have a bridge to somewhere in Minneapolis soon.


-This article first appeared in The Washington Times on May 23, 2008.

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