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Government Neglect

This column was written by John Nichols.

As rescue workers continued to pull bodies out of the stretch of the Mississippi River that runs beneath the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters released a $5 million grant to help with cleanup and recovery at the site of the disaster.

That will barely be enough to cover the expense of extracting the bodies of the drowned and dismembered commuters who were hurtled into the river when the interstate highway bridge they were traveling on buckled and then fell into the river. And it will not begin to pay for the rebuilding of a vital transportation link in one of America's most populous cities — an initiative that will cost in the hundreds of millions.

To get the money that is needed to repair the damage, limits on federal aid for infrastructure will have to be lifted.

This will happen now not because the money is needed but because dozens of Minnesotans have been killed and injured.

If the federal limits were not applied with an eye toward denying needed infrastructure funding to states, if the federal government accepted its responsibility to maintain the bridges, roads, levees and sewers of the United States, the death and destruction that comes from neglect might well have been avoided.

The I-35W bridge had repeatedly been identified as suffering from "fatigue cracks." Inspectors had labeled it "structurally deficient."

Yet, as Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman noted on the morning after the collapse, "The death bridge was 'structurally deficient,' we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way."

That's not a unique circumstance. That is the daily reality of America's rapidly aging and decaying infrastructure. Just a few weeks ago in New York City, an underground steam pipe exploded, killing one person and injuring dozens

Natural disasters do occur. Storms, heat, aging steel and concrete can all contribute to horrific turns of events like the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the pipe explosion in New York, or the nightmare that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast.

But there is simply no question that the steady neglect of the crying need for repair and improvement of bridges, levees and other vital pieces of the nation's infrastructure, and the resolute stinginess of a federal government that is much better at finding money to repair the Middle East than the middle west, makes disasters more likely to occur and more extreme in their consequences.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobucher is right when she says, "Bridges in America should not be falling down."

They will continue to fall, however, just as aging levies will continue to crumble, until the federal government gets serious about investing in the updating, improvement and replacement of decaying infrastructure. The point here is not to absolve state officials, who in Minnesota — as in Louisiana two years ago — could and should have done more. But an "interstate highway system" is, by its nature and by the intents of the founders of the American experiment and their wisest successors, a federal priority.

Major infrastructure challenges, such as maintaining bridges over our mightiest rivers and modernizing levies, ought never be the sole or even the major responsibility of cash-strapped state and local governments. That is a recipe for disaster — deadly, injurious and damaging disaster of a sort that plays out not just in "headline" events like a bridge collapse but in hundreds of below-the-radar infrastructure failures each year.

The American Society of Civil Engineers argues that, "With each passing day, aging and overburdened infrastructure threatens the economy and quality of life in every state, city and town in the nation." Conditions have grown so bad that the ASCE estimates it would cost $1.6 trillion over a five-year period just to bring the nation's infrastructure up to "good" condition. "Establishing a long-term development and maintenance plan must become a national priority," says the group.

That $1.6 trillion figure sounds like a lot of money, unless it is compared with the anticipated cost of $1 trillion or more for completing George Bush's mission in Iraq.

Make no mistake, the money to renew our collapsing infrastructure can be found.

But it will not be spent appropriately until top officials in Washington, led by the president, recognize that maintaining the infrastructure of the United States is as important, and as worthy of investment, as fighting wars in places like Iraq.

There are many costs that come when our leaders divert $2 billion every ten days to occupy a distant land. The first of these is human. Wars cost lives in a war zone, but they also dry up the funding that could save lives on the home front. By drawing resources away from vital social and economic development projects at home — and maintaining a safe and functional infrastructure is essential to progress on both fronts — an obsessive focus on warmaking abroad leaves a trail of death, destruction and decay in the U.S.

Writing of federal "negligence" when it comes to infrastructure repair, the Star-Tribune's Coleman observed, "A trillion spent in Iraq, while schools crumble, there aren't enough cops on the street and bridges decay while our leaders cross their fingers and ignore the rising chances of disaster.

"And now, one has fallen, to our great sorrow, and people died losing a gamble they didn't even know they had taken. They believed someone was guarding the bridge.

"We need a new slogan and we needed it yesterday:

"No More Collapses."

Amen to that.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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