Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Minnesota Bridge Tragedy

This is a time to give those who lost loved ones, or who were severely injured or simply those who were lucky to survive the collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota as chance to grieve. Rescuers still need to undergo the difficult and gruesome task of recovering the bodies of those who are still listed among the missing. As a people, we join in the call for prayer and reflection. Eventually, this tragic incident too will be investigated. A cause identified. There is a new bridge that will need to be engineered and constructed. And hopefully, we will finally learn a few lessons from the tragic event that unfolded on August 1, 2007.

I would agree that now is not the time for political recriminations, but someone should have told this to our increasingly out of touch president.

This morning, while crossing my own bridge to reach to work, I made a rare listen to the President of the United States, speaking from the Rose Garden. The news station had interrupted their regular broadcast invite George Bush to speak to the nation, about the tragedy in Minnesota.

It is appropriate when a major national tragedy to occur, for the President to say a few words of condolences. We want to hear from the President that all is well in the world and he is taking proactive measures to help those directly impacted by the tragedy. And this morning, George Bush began in his stammering manner by saying, “I spoke to Governor (Tim) Pawlenty and Mayor (RT) Rybak this morning . . . I also told them how much we are in prayer for those who suffered. And I thank my fellow citizens for holding up those who are suffering right now in prayer.”

Okay, there is nothing wrong with the President’s opening. But then he said, “By the end of the week, members (of Congress) are going to be leaving for their month-long August recess. And by the time they will return, there will be less than a month before the end of the fiscal year on September the 30th, and yet they haven’t passed one of the 12 spending bills that they’re required to pass.”

Huh? Did I just hear this correctly? Once again, the President had the nation’s attention looking upon him for leadership and guidance and instead, he spends most of his speech complaining about Congress budget dispute with the White House. It seemed as though he had learned nothing after his bungling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What was George saying? Had Congress adopted the Transportation budget for 2008 sooner, we could have avoided the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis from collapsing?

This is one time when I will not place direct blame on Bush and his Administration of crooked thieves, at least not immediately. But the statement was simply shameful.

The fact is; highway administrators and civil engineers have been raising the alarm over the failing national infrastructure for nearly three decades now. According to a 2005 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, 160,570 bridges out of the nations 590,750 bridges were declared to be structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. In another ASCE report published during the same year claimed that it will take $1.6 trillion to repair the nation’s infrastructure problems from aviation to sewer systems.

In simple truth, we have ignored in grand scale, our aging infrastructure that we have become very dependent upon for our daily lives. The collapse of the I-35W Bridge is but the latest representative of an ever increasing list of failures that is due to neglect, age and overuse.

There is no single individual to blame. Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty. Both have tried to govern on the cheap, whether the place is the hallowed halls of the federal government or in the planning department of a municipality. We have grown convinced that we can all enjoy the benefits of the commons (good roads, bridges, schools, fire, police, etc.) and at the same time allow for massive tax cuts that benefit corporations and the very rich, justify the unjustifiable debt and wonder aloud, when we too will benefit, while at the same time handout blank checks to continue a war that lost its reason and meaning a long time ago.

News reports indicated this evening that the problems with the I-35W Bridge had been known since 1990, but based on the rating scale engineers use to quantify bridge safety; the bridge had not fallen below the 50 percent margin requiring the bridge replacement. At the same time, there was a news report about Minnesota Governor Pawlenty had vetoed a five cent increase to the state gas taxes in May of this year that could have directed millions of dollars for road repair in Minnesota.

But perhaps the most obscene news item released today, was the postponement of the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Minnesota Twins brand new, $522 million (out of which, $392 million will be paid for by the taxpayers of Hennepin County) Baseball Stadium. This last item is especially obscene in face of the tragic collapse of the Minneapolis Bridge. The message it seems, it’s okay to spend millions of the public money (and break the "no new taxes pledge") for billionaire sports owners, to be played by millionaire spoiled brats and watched by the very elite, but heaven forbid we spend that same amount of money on replacing an aging bridge or building a new school.

Something is very wrong in this country. What is the use of a multi-million dollar baseball stadium, when the freeways and bridges needed to bring people to the games is falling apart?