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Mianus River Bridge Collapse and the politics of national infrastructure

by: Maura

Thu Aug 02, 2007 at 16:41:56 PM EDT

The tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota yesterday reminded me of our own fatal bridge collapse here in CT and the very real impact that political debates have on people's lives.

Few Nutmeggers who were alive in 1983 will ever forget the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95.  For those of us close to the area, the bridge collapse had a longer term impact beyond the deaths, injuries, and traffic snarls it caused.  A span of I-95 was closed for months, and the re-routing of traffic off I-95 and onto the local streets in Cos Cob and Stamford had a devastating effect on my neighborhood that lasted well beyond the construction of a temporary replacement truss.

My memories of the collapse mostly focus around its impact on my childhood.  Before the Mianus River Bridge collapse, my street was a quiet, leafy working-class family refuge.  A couple dozen kids would play in the street all day during the summer - our street favorites were running bases, four-square, SPUD, and epic games of ring-o-leavio which would stretch hours into the evening. 

These kinds of idyllic summers ended on June 28, 1983, when our quiet street with 20 mph speed limits turned into a major thoroughfare for 18-wheelers barreling through Stamford at 45 and 55 mph.  We couldn't play running bases when we had to run out of the street after each pitch to a void being run over by trucks trying to make up lost time.  The decimation of our previously kid-friendly street dovetailed with the arrival of cable TV and TV-based video game systems, so our neighborhood's decades-long traditions of street games disappeared forever in a single summer, a tragedy I always connect to the Mianus River Bridge-related detours.

The idea that tragedies such as bridge collapses should not be "politicized", that is, discussed and analyzed in a political context, is preposterous.   Most of us cross at least one bridge every day as we go about our daily lives. Bridge maintenance is part of the role of government, and funding bridge inspection, repair, and construction is inherently political.  In the case of the Mianus River Bridge, the collapse was not just a structural fluke, but one that exposed problems in the state's inspection system:

At the time of the disaster, the state had just 12 engineers, working in pairs, assigned to inspect 3,425 bridges.

The official NTSB report on the Mianus River Bridge collapse made recommendations not only about drainage systems to prevent fatigue cracks, but also bridge inspection policies and procedures.

Of course, robust bridge inspection procedures cost money.  Tax money.  And that's where politics comes in.

Maura :: Mianus River Bridge Collapse and the politics of national infrastructure
This morning, prominent conservative blogger John Hinderaker wrote at Powerline:

This is the kind of disaster that just doesn't happen in the United States--a bridge spontaneously collapsing, apparently, into a river. It is hard to convey to those who don't live here the astonishment of this sort of catastrophe happening on our most traveled highway.

We Nutmeggers know well that "this sort of catastrophe" does indeed happen, as it did on our own most traveled highway here in CT.    In fact, the media today is reminding us of a long list of recent bridge collapses.  In the case of the Mianus River Bridge, the loss of life would have been exponentially worse if the collapse had happened during rush hour rather than at 1:30 AM.

These bridge collapses are neither randomly spontaneous nor inexplicable.  The bridge that collapsed yesterday was rated "structurally deficient" in 2005.  In fact, hundreds of thousands of bridges are rated "structurally deficient" around the country.  And only taxpayer money will fix them.  The American Society of Civil Engineers said earlier this year:

As of 2005, 156,335 of the nation's 595,363 bridges, or 26.3%, were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, as compared to 34.6% of all bridges in 1992. However, despite this improvement, functionally obsolescent or structurally deficient bridges on the nation's transportation systems continue to constitute significant potential hazards which may jeopardize the safe, reliable and efficient operation of these.

To simply maintain the current condition of these bridges will require an annual $7.3 billion (2000 dollars) investment. To eliminate all bridge deficiencies will require $9.4 billion (2000 dollars) annually for a period of 20 years. Total bridge expenditure by all levels of government for capital outlays (including system preservation and system expansion) was at $8.8 billion in 2003. Additional funding beyond that level will therefore be needed to continue to reduce the backlog of structurally deficient bridges, and prevent more bridges from becoming structurally deficient.

(h/t Al Tompkins).

In fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, of the 4,166 bridges in Connecticut, 351 are "structurally deficient" and 1,050 are "functionally obsolete" as of 2006.

Stephen Flynn, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former director of the National Security Council's Office of Global Issues wrote this editorial at Popular Mechanics today:

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines-a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century-dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system-are at or beyond their designed life span.

In the end, investigators may find that there are unique and extraordinary reasons why the I-35W bridge failed. But the graphic images of buckled pavement, stranded vehicles, twisted girders and heroic rescuers are a reminder that infrastructure cannot be taken for granted. The blind eye that taxpayers and our elected officials have been turning to the imperative of maintaining and upgrading the critical foundations that underpin our lives is irrational and reckless.

America's gross domestic product in 2006 was $13.2 trillion-we can afford to have world-class infrastructure. As a stepping-off point, we should insist that our elected representatives publicly acknowledge the risk of neglecting the bridges, roads and other essential hardware that goes into making a modern civilization. Then we should hold them accountable for setting priorities and for marshaling the requisite resources to repair our increasingly brittle society.

Taxes are the price we pay for living in a "civilized" society: one with running water, sewers, electric power, and a transportation system. Anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric has had a dangerous, deleterious impact on our public infrastructure including our roads, our bridges, our sewer and water systems, and our power grid. 

Minnesota's Democratic Senate and a bipartisan coalition in the Minnesota House had a showdown with Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty back in 2005 over his "no new taxes" pledge.  The bipartisan coalition proposed a dime-a-gallon tax increase to fund critical road improvements, according to WCCO:

If it were to become law, the bill would infuse $7.3 billion into road construction and mass transit operation over the next decade through a combination of revenue sources that includes the gas tax.

Governor Pawlenty vetoed the bill.  He wanted to borrow the money to fund less extensive road improvements rather than break his "no new tax" pledge.  It's a typical tactic of so-called conservative Republicans: oppose taxes and even support tax giveways for the rich while drastically increasing borrowing.  They demonize "tax and spend" politicians while they quietly borrow and spend.

And in typically helpful and productive commentary, President Bush today issued a statement on the Minnesota bridge collapse that essentially blamed Democrats:

This doesn't have to be this way. The Democrats won last year's election fair and square, and now they control the calendar for bringing up bills in Congress. They need to pass each of these spending bills individually, on time, and in a fiscally responsible way.

The budget I've sent to Congress fully funds America's priorities. It increases discretionary spending by 6.9 percent. My Cabinet Secretaries assure me that this is adequate to meet the needs of our nation.

Unfortunately, Democratic leaders in Congress want to spend far more. Their budget calls for nearly $22 billion more in discretionary spending next year alone.

Only President Bush could use this tragedy to blame Democrats for...asking for more government investment in infrastructure?  It boggles the mind.

When investments in critical infrastructure are deemed "discretionary" and implied to be optional and unnecessary, they don't get funded.  The American Society of Engineers says, "To eliminate all bridge deficiencies will require $9.4 billion (2000 dollars) annually for a period of 20 years."

That's an enormous amount money.  But we've already appropriated $602 billion in spending on wars in Iraq and Afganistan with no end in sight.    (Notably, with no new taxes to pay for those appropriations, as our national debt continues to rise.)  In contrast to this $602 billion, ASCE estimates for eliminating all bridge deficiencies nationwide totals only $188 billion over 20 years. 

Meanwhile, the just two days ago, the Congressional Budge Office estimated that our continued occupation of Iraq could cost us an additional trillion dollars over the next decade, even if troop levels are reduced to 75,000 by 2013.  The so-called "surge" alone, if extended for a full year, would add another $22 billion to this total. 

I couldn't help but notice the irony of Bush having the vapors over the Democrats' $22 billion in "discretionary" spending when it is the exact CBO estimate for the cost of Bush's beloved "surge" in Iraq.  Yet another cost of the war.

Ultimately, neglect of critical insfrastrcture is not simply a partisan issue.  Far too many Democrats have adopted conservative framing on taxes, supporting tax cuts that they know are irresponsible while ignoring mounting debt and neglecting critical infrastructure investments. 

Funding of bridges is political.  And ultimately the debate comes down to those political leaders who have the courage to say that infrastructure is a worthy and wise investment, and those who either ascribe to or are too afraid to challenge conservative hero Grover Norquist's "no new taxes" approach of systematically de-funding government operations:

"I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Amid the horror of this horrible loss of life, the least we can do is work to reverse our neglect to prevent future bridge tragedies.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is right:

"I think we should look at this tragedy that occurred as a wake-up call for us. We have -- all over the country -- crumbling infrastructure, highways, bridges, dams, and we really need to take a hard look at this," Reid said Thursday.

He said it was "the right thing to do" for the infrastructure and the economy. "For every billion dollars we spend in our crumbling infrastructure, 47,000 high-paying jobs are created," Reid said.

Pro-war conservatives like to wield the slogan, "Freedom is not free."  Well, neither are bridges.  Politicians of both parties need to stop telling voters what they want to hear (No new taxes! Tax cuts!) and instead have the integrity to tell everyone what we need to hear: that we've neglected our infrastructure for far too long, and we need to grow up and start paying for it.   Addressing these necessities in the context of yesterday's tragedy is not only appropriate, it's the only responsible approach for Americans to take.

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Chris Dodd on Situation Room right now (0.00 / 0)
He and Chuck Hagel are talking about legislation that they -- coincidentally -- introduced yesterday for bold, comprehensive investments in our nation's infrastructure.

Liveblogging Dodd on Situation Room (0.00 / 0)
Blitzer says 33% of bridges in Connecticut are obsolte...the concern is that so much of the funding for these projects is considered "pork barrel" spending.

Dodd: Recalls Mianus River bridge collapse, says he's looking for a unique and special kind of way to fund all this.  It can't be done just through the earmark process.

Blitzer:  Hagel, how you gonna fund it?

Hagel:  We have to accept the reality of what's out there, it will require hundreds of billions of dollars of funding.  Dodd and I have a novel approach, to level private sector moneies with public sector credit through an infrastructure bank.  Worked with Wall Street for 2 years on this.

Blitzer:  Senator Dodd, Hagel, let's hope this shakes things up because it needs shaking up.

Jack Cafferty:  I think the amount of money that we've spent in Iraq and Afghanistan is $600 billion dollars.

Ha!  I feel like they just read my diary.

Excellent post Maura (4.00 / 2)
The cynical and manipulative right wing strategy of demonizing government and promising everyone that the Promised Land is just a tax abolition away is destroying this country one piece at a time. 

WTF do these people think?  The money fairy pays for everything they use from schools to hospitals to roads, and keeps the lights on as well?  Drown government in the bathtub, and shortly thereafter you aren't even going to HAVE a bathtub.

Thanks, Chele (4.00 / 1)
I thought a lot about that Grover Norquist quote after Hurricane Katrina, when people were literally drowning...not because of a random storm, but because of neglect of the levees.  When the levees broke, it was the clear result of what happens when you starve a critical infrastructure of funding. 

Drown government in the bathtub...and people drown.

[ Parent ]
I Crossed The Bridge 1/2 Hour Before It Collapsed (0.00 / 0)
It must have been hanging by a thread - a lot of people avoided that bridge for a while even after it had been repaired.

Thank God (4.00 / 1)
Wow.  So much difference 30 minutes makes.

So many of the interviews on TV today are people who narrowly escaped death -- who just reached the other side of the bridge in the seconds it must have been hanging by a thread, too. 

Who can blame people for avoiding any bridge for a while after such a tragedy?  I just hope it reminds people that bridges don't just miraculously stay up.  It takes a tremendous amount of engineering knowledge, public investment, and rigorous and disciplined maintenance to keep such magestic, magnificent, and critical structures safe.

As a former public school teacher, tragedies like this often make me think of how important it is for us to invest in math, science, and engineering education as well, both at the K-12 and university levels.  We need to invest in the highly skilled people who we depend upon to keep these structures safe.

[ Parent ]
i agree i watching cnn right now (0.00 / 0)
how is  eveybody here  today  we need lot money  all the  counry  help  the roads and  bridges  you no  we need  a  good senator  and  both  off them  will try  the pres wont help

I wonder if this will be spun... (0.00 / 0)
in order to privatize more roads.  It has already happened in Indiana and in a couple of other states.  The spin will be "since state governments can't afford to maintain their infrastructure, maybe it's best for private investment to take over responsibility.  Yeah. right.

It's already started (4.00 / 1)
I was watching a news conference w/ Gov. Pawlenty as I was writing this, and he was announcing that he was contracting with a private firm to conduct a parallel investigation alongside the NTSB one.  Implication: private, for-profit firms are better than what the NTSB will come up with.

Then he announced that he was contracting with a private company to conduct an extensive overview of inspection procedures in the state.

Of course he didn't say anything that I heard about the fact that there were inspections and those inspections uncovered serious structural deficiencies on the bridge, yet he vetoed a bill for highway improvements.

It's a serious risk that anti-government, anti-tax folks will use situations like this to funnel more public money to privatization projects rather than simply adequately funding public infrastructure as it should be funded.

[ Parent ]
Another great post (0.00 / 0)
Howie Klein at Down With Tyranny takes a look at the same issue.

Please submit this to NYT (4.00 / 1)
You have to give them some piece of decent journalism to print!!  We can't hog it all for ourselves.

Excellent essay which should be the lead in the Connecticut section on Sunday.

BTW, I hear the traffic from the bridge all the time and look out our window at the Mianus Bridge.  My daughter rowed under it every day for years.

i agree we need ask mr shays (0.00 / 0)
he  can get money  you no

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