Wednesday, October 24, 2007

(Re) Building Bridges

Watching and reading about the horrific fires blazing around Southern California, as wildfires do almost every year, I find myself thinking back to the last disaster that caught the country by surprise. Way back in August, the sudden, catastrophic collapse of a primary highway bridge in Minneapolis riveted the nation. At the height of rush hour, jam-packed with commuters, the 8-lane I-35 freeway bridge over the Mississippi River gave way, dropping cars and trucks into the murky waters below. TV stations across the country and around the world broadcast images of a school bus full of kids, tottering on the edge of destruction, while rescuers and emergency crews raced to save people trapped beneath crumpled concrete and twisted steel girders.

While hundreds of people had been on the bridge at the time, the fact “only” 13 people were killed was seen as a miracle. The bridge collapse occurred without any apparent warning signs, and the cause is yet to be determined, but within a few hours it became clear that it wasn’t exactly unexpected. In fact, engineers had recently rated the bridge as “structurally deficient”, which means that parts of the structure are in poor condition, but still considered safe for use – in this case, the bridge was rated 4 out of 10, and was still open to the heaviest-laden (68-ton behemoth) trucks, without restrictions.

Wondering how such a disaster could have been allowed to happen, along with many people I looked for conspiracies and incompetence, while questions about public safety and the state of the nation’s transportation infrastructure filled newspapers' Op-Ed pages and the blogosphere. But over time the truth of the matter has seemed, if anything, even more disturbing. The collapsed bridge was, in fact, one of 70,000 significant bridges across the USA that have been officially rated “structurally deficient”, and the scale of the problem is huge.

The Minneapolis bridge was only 40 years old, but in the time since its construction traffic has increased dramatically – the number of cars and trucks on the road in 2007 is roughly 3 times what it was in 1967. Making matters worse is the weight of vehicles – trucks in particular are far heavier than they used to be, putting much more stress and strain on roads and bridges.

While road usage has increased dramatically, investment in building and maintaining roads has dropped substantially – as you can tell from driving just about anywhere in the country. No one questions the need to fix things – the question, as always, is who gets stuck with the bills. One report stated that the need for investment in repairs across the nation at $20 billion a year over the next 20 years, while an earlier, more wide-ranging one by the American Society of Civil Engineers came up with a total of some $1,500 billion -- a huge sum. (To put these prices into perspective, VISA credit cards around the world process some $400 billion in transactions every year, and the War on Terror in Iraq and Afganistan has cost the US Treasury some $800 billion. So yes, we’re talking a LOT of money!)

So, what to do? Raise gasoline taxes ? No politician is foolhardy enough to suggest it very loudly, but a 5 to 10 cents a gallon increase (from the current 18.4 cents a gallon, unchanged since 1993…) would seem the most sensible and fairest approach, raising some $10-20 billion a year. Alternatives include a range of stealthier taxes, establishing road tolls, and/or increasing privatization. Stay tuned for developments, but don’t hold your breath – or be too surprised when the next “unexpected disaster” strikes.

Meanwhile, back in Minneapolis, traffic from the collapsed has been diverted onto the older parallel 10th Avenue bridge, and within 18 months or so a replacement bridge will be built. If all goes according to plan, the $250 million replacement bridge will open to traffic around the time of the new ($600 million!) stadium for the Twins baseball team.


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