Bridge Collapse Shows Why We Need Government

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now

17 August 2007
Eric Fried

When Minnesota’s busiest bridge collapsed during rush hour and plunged into the river, you could hear it all the way in Alaska. Not literally, of course, but when we turned on the TV news during our vacation to check on “the real world,” the echoes of the tragedy were already reverberating across the country.

Earthquakes and mudslides sweep away poorly built shacks from Mexico to Manila, but here in America, our bridges and levees don’t just fall apart. Now, with infrastructure collapsing at both ends of the Mississippi, and aging steam pipes exploding beneath the streets of Manhattan, our national confidence is shaken yet again. Experts assure us terrorism is not suspected in the bridge collapse, like that’s supposed to make us feel better. Who needs al-Qaeda when our cities fall down all on their own?

It’s not like we weren’t warned about our aging infrastructure. We just didn’t listen. In 2005 the American Society for Civil Engineers issued a failing report card for our nation’s roads, bridges, dams, tunnels, sewers, and other boring but essential underpinnings of modern life. They estimated it would cost $190 billion to bring all our bridges up to good, safe, working order. In the post-Reagan era of “government is the problem, not the solution,” and politician-bots intoning “No New Taxes” like it was a magic re-election spell, who’s going to champion spending billions on bolts and rivets?

After a West Virginia bridge collapse 40 years ago, the feds mandated regular bridge inspections. Those inspections show one in four of the nation’s 600,000 bridges are “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” The 40-year-old I-35W highway bridge in Minneapolis was rated a 50 out of 100, but that “didn’t mean the bridge was unsafe,” in the words of US Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. Apparently, it meant just that. By comparison, the Mulberry Street bridge over the Poudre River is rated at 37.3, and carries almost 25,000 vehicles a day. The only bridge rated lower in the county is the Highway 34 bridge over the Big Thompson at Estes Park.

Many of our major bridges are 50 years old, built as part of the Interstate Highway System under the notorious left-wing big-government advocate General Dwight Eisenhower. Back then, the top marginal tax rate was 90% and a generous chunk of the nation’s tax revenues came from corporate America. The rich were doing fine, but there was nothing like the emerging billionaire class of today, and we had a large and healthy middle class. I don’t idolize the conformist 1950’s – before racial minorities, women and others achieved anything like equal rights – but at least our nation had the funds to invest in our infrastructure. Now we charge everything on credit, outsource our factories, let our public assets decay so we can sell them off to private interests and watch “patriotic” corporations set up shop in the Cayman Islands to avoid paying any US taxes at all.

The gas tax – a fixed amount rather than a percentage of the price of gas – has not been raised since 1993 and is not indexed to inflation. Even as gas prices have soared and oil companies have made record profits, gas tax revenues have stayed flat. Our federal highway trust fund is almost broke. Minnesota Governor Pawlenty vetoed raising the state gas tax last year, but is now reconsidering. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the powerful former chair of the House Transportation Committee, was recently quoted as saying “We have to… grasp this problem. And yes, I would even suggest, fund this problem with a tax.” President Bush, naturally, resolutely opposes raising the gas tax, and says he is considering more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. I kid you not.

The bridge collapse shows why we need government that is competent, caring, and adequately funded. Forget that bridge to the 21st century: let’s repair all those 20th century bridges first.

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