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Bridge collapse exposes disasters in the making

August 17, 2007 | Page 3

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the looming infrastructure crisis in the U.S.

"I SLAMMED on my brakes and saw something in front of me disappear, and then my car pointed straight down, and we fell."

That's how Dennis Winegar described the horror on August 1 when the Interstate 35W bridge near downtown Minneapolis collapsed during the evening rush hour. More than a hundred people were injured, eight killed and several were still missing after their vehicles were crushed or fell into the Mississippi River or the road more than 60 feet below.

The precise cause of the collapse of the 40-year-old bridge, which carried some 140,000 cars every day, is still under investigation. But the terrifying incident has thrown into sharp focus the disasters waiting to happen on other bridges, highways and roads across the country.

Stories of decaying and crumbling infrastructure suddenly appeared on the front pages of newspapers.

In 2005, the I-35W bridge was rated as "structurally deficient" and possibly in need of replacement, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory database.

But according to bridge inspection records obtained in February by the Pioneer Press, some 100 Minnesota bridges are in worse shape than the one that collapsed. More than 1,100 are considered structurally deficient and in need of replacement, significant maintenance or rehabilitation.

The potential for more horrors isn't restricted to Minnesota. Between 1966 and 2005, about 1,500 bridges collapsed in the U.S., according to the Texas Transportation Institute. And more than one-quarter of the 590,750 bridges in the U.S. are "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete"--meaning they carry more traffic than they were designed for--according to a 2005 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Meanwhile, bridges at least received a grade of "C" on the ASCE's "Report Card for America's Infrastructure"--better than any of the other "subjects" the society rates.

Drinking water got a D–. The U.S. faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging facilities and comply with safe drinking water regulations. Aviation got a D+, with no plans to deal with the growing number of aircraft handled by air traffic control, expected to increase by almost one-third in 10 years.

Transit had a D+. The ASCE says an estimated 14 million Americans ride public transportation each weekday, yet federal investment in real dollars dropped between 2001 and 2005. And energy facilities get a D. Existing electricity transmission facilities weren't designed for the current level of demand, resulting in an increased number of "bottlenecks," which increase costs and raise the risk of blackouts.

Overall, according to the ASCE, U.S. infrastructure has a "D" grade point average. The society estimates that the U.S. government would have to spend $9.4 billion over the next 20 years to repair all faulty bridges. As Edwin Rossow, a professor of civil engineering at Northwestern University, told Newsweek, "It eventually comes down to the same old thing, it's just a matter of money."

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POLITICIANS TYPICALLY don't make talk about increased funding for infrastructure--until disaster strikes. "In the last 30 years, when a dam fails, there's an immediate dam-inspection program," Karen Chou, a professor of civil engineering at Minnesota State University in Mankato, told the Pioneer Press. "When a bridge fails, there's an immediate bridge-inspection program.

"In the short term, there'll be a lot more attention from the public and politicians, then it will wear out in a couple of years."

The long-term health and safety of the people who use America's infrastructures takes a backseat to other more profitable short-term projects--like the half-billion-dollar sports stadium just completed in the Twin Cities.

But Wall Street is betting on some reconstruction projects following the bridge tragedy. Stocks for infrastructure-related companies rose after the terrible news, with stock for Aecom Technology, for example, climbing more than 4 percent, and Fluor up more than 5 percent.

Rescue workers were still looking for the dead when the corporate vultures were sharpening their talons in anticipation of rebuilding contracts.

In some places, governments are "solving" the infrastructure problem by selling off roads and bridges. For instance, Indiana's governor auctioned the rights to operate the Indiana Toll Road--the road that connects the Chicago Skyway on the west end to the Ohio Turnpike on the east--to private investors for $3.8 billion. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley made $1.8 billion leasing the Skyway itself.

Privatizing public infrastructure is a bipartisan strategy. While the Reagan administration dreamed of a federal government whose services were run by private corporations, it was Bill Clinton and Al Gore who helped make the dream come true. Today's privatization of highways and tollways is a continuation of the "Reinventing Government" programs of Clinton-Gore administration in the early 1990s.

The goal was to take the "successes" of private business and apply them to the federal government--in other words, increase productivity and cut down on expenses by cutting "unnecessary" expenditures to the bone.

For example, under Clinton, the federal government contracted out more than 100 airport control towers and numerous military base functions. A 1994 plan from Gore called for air traffic to be converted into a self-supporting government corporation--the U.S. Air Traffic Services Corp.--but this failed to win congressional support.

Privatization is bound to lead to yet more disasters. "The private sector's legal responsibility to its shareholders is to make money--profit is their purpose," said Frank Busalacchi, secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Transportation, at a House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit hearing in February. "The public sector's responsibility is to ensure that we make wise choices with our citizen's resources."

He added, "This is all about money. If anybody thinks it's about anything else they're mistaken."

The bridge disaster--and the politicians' "solutions"--expose the warped priorities of a society that puts profit above human need. "How ironic is it that tonight's scheduled groundbreaking for a new Twins ballpark has been postponed?" wrote Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman. "Even the stadium barkers realize it is in poor taste to celebrate the spending of half a billion on ballparks when your bridges are falling down.

"Perhaps this is a sign of shame. If so, it is welcome. Shame is overdue."

While the government says it can't find the money to pay for its crumbling bridges, wealthy Americans are putting away tens of billions--thanks to the Bush administration's massive tax breaks for the wealthy.

The wealthiest people in the wealthiest country in the world are watching--while the bridges disappear beneath our feet.

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