Friday, August 03, 2007

Bridges to Nowhere

Hurtling through space in confusion is not the experience one expects to have while crossing a bridge on the way home. Alas as events in Minneapolis have shown such things might become more common. Those with existing bridge phobias, and there are many, feel a little less crazy at the moment.

The reaction of the media, congress, and the general public is a bit puzzling since the problems with the infrastructure of the United States have been remarked upon many times in the past 30 years or so. What is the surprise? For many years the bridges in major American cities have been the subject of concern and derision. As an example Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge was falling apart in the mid-1980s as were other spans around the country. Some bridges had maintenance stepped up or resumed. Many cities has postponed the work to save money, or rather apply the funds to vote getting projects like welfare.

Maintenance is not glamorous or interesting, even though it does require workers thereby creating jobs; something one would imagine even politicians would notice. The preference is to build new bridges like the new Ted Stevens bridge in Alaska. This 250 million dollar project connects an obscure island to the mainland allowing its 50 residents access during the summer. In winter they cross over the frozen lake so it is only a part time bridge. It's possible that the money could have been spent more wisely elsewhere but Stevens called in favors and got his way. Now it seems he might be on the way to prison so perhaps the bridge won't get built after all.

The public has the right to expect that structures paid for with tax dollars should stand the test of time. In Europe there are bridges and tunnels that have been in constant use for more than 2000 years, why can't the US build them to last at least 200 years? Corruption in public works is endemic of course, so much so that it has become a joke. It's hard to laugh when someone is killed because someone else wants to get rich.

What can be expected in the after math of the I-35 bridge collapse? Most likely there will be hearings, blame assignment, promises, outrage, and then a return to the status quo until the next disintegration; which will probably sooner than one expects.

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