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Archive for the ‘35W bridge’ Category

In Washington, the Democratic Congress’ drive to get us out of the disastrous war in Iraq has utterly run out of gas, not even the smallest criticism of the President’s private war could be passed. The Democrats run the danger of their mascot being changed from the donkey to the possum — roll over and play dead. Exactly what did they think they got elected to do?

Here in the Northland, we have a similar problem with paying attention beyond the news headlines — only a few short months since the 35W bridge collapsed and we seem to have lost all the intensity and focus that a disaster like this should have brought forth. No one in MnDOT is going to be held accountable, it seems, the highest bidder has been selected with no actual design in sight, and even at the Federal level a billion dollars was appropriated for infrastructure repair and maintenance, but at the same time chucked into the bill 2 1/2 billion dollars for other, non-infrastructure projects. Wow! Such dedication! Such commitment to right a tragedy! The governor states that he will provide $X million to get to work with the rebuilding, but sotto voce says that since he won’t raise taxes “unwisely,” the money will come out of school funding and some other helpless constituencies.

So the litany of monstrous incompetence continues: the Transportation Department’s emergency manager Sonia Morphew Pitt, it turns out, couldn’t be bothered to cut short a trip to the east coast to come home and, well, manage an emergency, undoubtedly the biggest one MnDOT has faced in the last decade or so; no, she stayed out there and came home when she felt like it. Heckofa job, Brownie! Granted, the governor has voiced his “displeasure” at her behavior, but so far that’s all.

But the lack of attention to maintenance issues manifests itself in a bizarre way right at Highway Headquarters in St. Paul — the MnDOT building itself is falling down while we watch. Due to 20 years of neglect and an unwillingness to actually spend money, the facade of the MnDOT building is falling off. The huge stone slabs are peeling off and to get in the building you have to pass through a reinforced tunnel, kind of like going into a bomb shelter. But this outrageous situation is apparently not an issue for the Governor and his Lieutenant-Governor / MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau. But spend money to fix the building? Not on their watch!

And finally, talk about taking a solid, aggressive stand at dealing with our rapidly-eroding civil infrastructure: various highway officials around the country are standing up and bravely proposing that — yes — the evaluation terminology should be changed because “the public is getting alarmed” at all these terms like “fracture-critical” and “structurally deficient.” So, presumably if we change these alarming terms, the forces of gravity will be held at bay. How simple! Star-Tribune columnist Nick Coleman, one of the few who refuses to let all this die and be swept under the rug, proposes that we should call it “faith-based bridges: close your eyes and pray you get across.”

I’m tempted, but afraid, to say “just when you think you’ve seen it all . . .”

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This post ought to be titled, “The Engineers Were Right, and the Politicians are Spineless Invertebrates,” but then people would complain that I’m just whining and casting stones because I’m an engineer. Well, I’m casting stones, but no whine here — I’m really frosted about this. I’ve driven that bridge too many times to be satisfied with the “buck stops somewhere else, we are not responsible” mentality of not only the Pawlenty administration, but many of the ones that preceded it, and not only here in Minnesota, and Louisiana, but lots of other places too. It’s glamorous and fun to build, but just dull and boring to maintain, and maintenance costs money that no one sees.

So in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis we see a slight miscalculation of a “no taxes” administration and it’s “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem” Commissioner of Transportation. Although with gross dishonesty they’ve stated “money was never an issue,” that’s patent drivel. Money was, and is, all of the problem in the precipitous decline of our national infrastructure.

It’s also blatant dishonesty to say, as the Pawlenty / Molnau administration has done, that “we had no warning, we were never told!” Just like Bush at New Orleans, they are all surprised by this sudden problem, which they thought they had pushed off safely into the future. This in spite of constant warnings from engineers about the Levees in New Orleans, or the progressive structural problems in the 35W bridge (and other similar bridges in Minnesota, of this and other designs), they are surprised, and yet not to blame! Their own engineers complained for 15 years about the poor condition of the bridge, but if stalling action saved money today, the Pawlenty administration did it so they could say, “we held the taxes down.” They hoped, apparently, that the bill for this neglect would come due in someone else’s administration.

The Transportation Commissioner piously notes that “we have a maintenance plan, within the resources we have available,” while the Governor vetoes gas-tax increases targeted at road repair, that would have provided these resources. QED! We have no problem!

But the chief tax-cutting think-tank, the Taxpayer’s League, now tut-tuts and says “lets not start the blame game,” but so help me there IS blame here, blame laid at the doorstep of the last several Transportation Commissioners, and the Governor, and the layers of faceless bureaucrat-managers who watered down the straight talk in the engineers’ and bridge-inspectors’ reports into the relaxed pablum that let these people — spineless politicians all — look aside and hence “be surprised” when the bridge fell.

Make no mistake, we are consuming our civil infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, power lines, parks, public buildings, pipelines, the air-traffic control system, and more — as if it were endless and as if we had no responsibility for it at all. We’re consuming it because we don’t have the courage to tax ourselves to repair what we have inherited from our forebears. It’s that simple.

There are more buzzards coming home to roost, mark my words. We spend money without end in Iraq to combat our enemies the terrorists, but for maintenance of our domestic infrastructure, to quote Pogo the Possum, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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