Bridges to somewhere

The bridge collapse provides an opportunity to examine our nation’s infrastructure.

Last week, the weight of our collective negligence sent a bridge and many people tumbling into the rushing waters of the Mississippi River. As sad and unnecessary as the deaths caused by the collapse are, we are fortunate that the toll was not higher, and that the speed and skill of first responders like firefighters, police officers and brave citizens deserve much of the credit for this.

Perhaps the best metaphor for the problem we face here is the work that was being done on the bridge at the time of its collapse – refinishing the surface for a smoother ride, while the critical structure below was allowed to decay. This collapse should serve as the warning bell that we all need to hear about our nation’s crumbling infrastructure.

According to a 2005 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the United States infrastructure, meaning roads, bridges, water treatment and the like, received a cumulative “D” rating. The group estimated that it would cost $1.6 trillion to repair or replace existing infrastructure, never mind the costs of building anything new. While that number is staggering, it really shouldn’t be, because the state and federal government have short-changed transportation for years. Once something is built, the tendency is to move on and build something else. None of the politicians that ultimately decide where the funding goes are as interested in tune-ups as they are in ribbon cuttings.

While the photographs of collapsing bridges draw our eyes (and cable news crews) like magnets, the roads, drinking water, hazardous waste, dams, power grids and sanitation systems are just as important to our well-being as bridges, and we should not mistakenly focus all of our efforts in one area.

The longer we wait, the more these repairs will cost, and we’ve already seen the tragic results of what happens when the wait grows too long. We question whether people will be able to stomach the $1.6 trillion price tag, but the choice we make here is essentially between a nation that works and a nation that doesn’t. Infrastructure affects commerce, public health and nearly every other sphere of human activity in between.

Mayor R.T. Rybak told the media last week, “These things that we take for granted – the roads we drive across, the streets we’re on, the bridges – are things that don’t have constituencies. And so when times get tough, no one is standing up and yelling for them.” It’s about time someone started yelling.