Minnesota Bridge Collapse Likely to Spawn Nasty Political Debate

Tuesday, August 07, 2007 at 08:53 PM

Because nothing in America is non-political these days, I'm betting that the collapse of the bridge in Minnesota will spark a really nasty political fight, and will do it sooner than later.

Questions about the state of our infrastructure have been around for a long time, and the collapse of the bridge has people on the right, like Bill Kristol, pooh-poohing the idea that the collapse is an indication that our infrastructure is in bad shape. He specifically said, in fact: "Once every twenty five years some bridge falls down unexpectedly due to engineering problems and it is unfortunate obviously but the idea that the whole country is crumbling is not, I think, credible."

On the other hand, House bills were introduced in the 108th and 109th congresses specifically to create some funding mechanism for upgrading and maintaining our infrastructure, so somebody obviously disagrees with Mr. Kristol. Neither bill went any where, however.

Now, Senator Schumer is already taking President Bush to task for threatening to veto an appropriations bill that increases the funding to maintain bridges and highways around the country. Needless to say, Bush's veto threat preceded the bridge collapse, and Schumer's comments came after it.

Rep. Kucinich has already introduced another House bill to fund our infrastructure, and it probably has a much better chance of being acted on than its predecessor bills.

Even the Secretary of Transportation, Mary Peters, got off to a good start on the issue, when she answered questions at a recent press gaggle:


SECRETARY PETERS:...I have sent out a directive from my office to all states, telling them that they need to inspect all similar bridges -- these are called steel arched truss bridges -- and I wanted those bridges -- there are a little over 750 of them nationwide -- immediately inspected. And so that directive has gone out, and that work is in process.


Q There is this general concern after this disaster that the nation's infrastructure is crumbling. Do you think that's an overly-broad characterization, or do you think that this in general is a very serious problem nationwide?

SECRETARY PETERS: Well, we certainly have aging infrastructure here in the United States. Most of our infrastructure came about as long as 50 years ago, as the interstate highway system was being built. I do believe that America's highways and bridges are safe. Certainly we need to look to the future, and make sure that we're spending our money where we need to be spending the money; that we're prioritizing how we're spending it, and making sure that we're meeting those highest priorities first.

Q Do you think there is generally under investment?

SECRETARY PETERS: There are always going to be more needs than there are monies available, and I think the way we solve that is prioritization and making sure that we're giving states the flexibility and the ability by not carving this up into many, many sub-programs, and lots of earmark. And you give them the opportunity to put the money where it needs to be spent first.

We need to have that important conversation about how we fund infrastructure in the future, and it's something that I look forward to engaging with folks in. But immediately, let's take care of the situation in Minnesota, let's find out what caused it, and take all the corrective actions that we need to once we have that information.

We do, indeed, need to "have that important conversation." But I have little doubt that the free marketeers will be immediately looking to use this as an opening to spread the practice of privatizing formerly governmental functions. Why impose taxes to care for bridges and roads when you can simply sell the rights to those structures to a private, for-profit company that then takes on that maintenance responsibility? That way, you see, the government makes money from the infrastructure, instead of spending it.

That seems like nonsense to me, of course: exactly where does anyone think the for-profit company will get the money for maintaining the bridge? From the public, of course. All that changes is that the portion of the public paying for the bridge is smaller, and comprised of those who actually use the bridge.

Then of course there's the fraud problem. The amount of money that a governmental unit gets for a road or a bridge is based on projections of future income from tolls. All it takes for fraud is for the for-profit company to get a "friendly" projection that underestimates future use of the structure, and the company has a windfall.

And what happens when the opposite occurs, when the projection of future use is too high, leaving the for-profit with far less revenue than it expected, but still with responsibility for maintaining the structure? Think there might be a few corners cut there?

I don't like our current American experience with attempts to privatize things like prisons and juvenile detention facilities. The Family Bush has sparked a lot of that experience in Florida and Texas and it has not, to understate the issue, gone well.

For what it's worth, here are two links to a lengthy pro-privatization view and a considerably shorter anti-privatization view.


I forget where I saw it, but there was this political cartoon with bin Lardass talking to an associate: "We'd best hurry and blow up their infrastructure before it collapses by itself!"

I am reminded of an old associate from long ago, he came here from the then USSR. He had a long list of stuff he hated about the Soviet ways of doing things, especially: Poor infrastructure, food, housing, you name it. "All they ever did was make weapons to trot out to show to the West!"

Sound achingly familiar, in that Yogi Berra sort of "Deja vu all over again" way, mmmmmm?

Yeppers. Seems USA is USSR II: Militarist, and out to promote our slanderous gospel to any poor, dumb country that doesn't know any better, oh, and we adore our weapons, yes....at the risk of poor levees, steam pipes and falling bridges galore.

Gee, we then wonder, is we headed the same direction as the old USSR? A failure superpower, dead of its own maniacal gluttony? Broken up into smaller pieces? Yeah, the Blue East, the Blue West and down the middle, Redneckia, of course.

Stay tuned, folks, more to come, right after these messages!