A bridge collapses and makes us look into our rear view mirror

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VOICES: The federal government needs the money to run the world and start wars and build bases on every continent, meaning it doesn’t have enough to keep things like old bridges healthy.

A fictitious bridge collapsed in South America four centuries ago and became one of the provocative opening paragraphs in modern literature.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth,1714,” wrote Thornton Wilder in ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey,’ “the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” The story gathered the threads of fate and irony. Why would a bridge supposedly so trustworthy give way? What connected the lives of the travelers?

Opinion: A bridge collapses and makes us look into our rear view mirror

At 6 p.m. on Aug. 1 an interstate bridge that had carried millions of cars and passengers over 40 years collapsed into the Mississippi River in the heart of Minneapolis. The bridge decks broke into gigantic slabs. Vehicles clanged into each other. Some pitched into the water; some capsized. Fires broke out. Men, women and children screamed. People died. Scores were injured. Drivers nimble enough to know how to save themselves rolled down their car windows as they plunged toward the river. Others couldn’t. It was an urban horror.

None of the occupants, including children in a school bus, sports fans on their way to a major league baseball game and commuters driving home from work, had any reason to question the reliability of the bridge they were crossing.

Yet this bridge, in construction and transportation terms, was a relic.

In the hours immediately after, politicians, bridge experts and then a bewildered public raised the inevitable questions. Indignation followed. An official inventory report of the condition of the nation’s bridges listed the Minneapolis interstate bridge as “structurally deficient.” It’s a technical term that does not immediately raise red flags for the professionals. It essentially means “this one bears watching.” Routine maintenance and construction, responding to reports like that, was in progress when the calamity happened. A former head of the National Transportation and Safety Board told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that possible vibrations from that work would probably be explored as a possible cause. He was informed of a 2001 University of Minnesota study that reported signs of fatigue cracking in the bridge supports. That, too, he said, would probably be investigated.

Ultimately, though, it is another failure of public policy–this one a spectacular headline-grabber—that makes one more demand on the conscience of the American public: How much do we really care or know about how the public’s money is being spent or railroaded?

How often do we connect the dots between grotesque misuse of the public’s resources and the breakdown of democracy’s nominal commitment to the common good?

The dots do connect with the sound of crunching concrete and the wails of children on a disintegrating bridge in Minneapolis. And they eventually link a preventable disaster like a bridge collapse with a massive and preventable social miscarriage like 46 million without health insurance. Never mind accommodating the uninsured. First accommodate the insurance industry.

One of my old college friends, an East Coast lawyer inclined to more conservative views, wrote to me this morning expressing both his sympathies and a truth.

“You know that the interstate highway system, started during the Eisenhower years and basically finished in the ‘60s, is in enormous need of repairs. But this priority seems to be ignored by the Congress. Latest example: $4 billion in earmarks attached to the recent Iraq spending bill.”

Whether Congress, legislature, governor’s office or city hall, there is generically never enough money for America’s bottomless transportation needs because not every state, county or empty pastures township can be accommodated, and the reasons run out the window. Don’t raise the gasoline tax. Don’t raise ANY tax. And for God’s sake don’t raise the income tax on people who, after a six year feast of tax cuts, can afford to pay more. If you try it we’re going to bury you in the next campaign because you and I know that the threadbare old proverb about actually paying for the quality of life we romanticize in America is a leftover from Aesop’s Fables.

Especially don’t raise the raise the taxes on hedge fund executives and don’t tax the estates of millionaires, don’t close the earmarks and don’t close the tax shelters in the Caribbean that skim billions of dollars from a public treasury that just might have produced enough money to replace a relic bridge before it shuddered and slid into the water.

For three or four decades in America we lived under a generally accepted axiom that the way to go was to Pay as You Go. We don’t do that much any more.

The lucky ones are the opportune ones or the clever ones who can afford the new system. Under the new system you pay with credit cards, which for the nimble ones are better than straight taxes. You build up debt and then you pay it off by traveling on bonus miles and dividends and investing in stocks that make money on leveraged buyouts and layoffs of workers. You do it by dealing with brokers who produce windfalls from market action whose victims are the misguided folks in the underclass who tried to keep up but never read or understood the cutthroat small print on the credit cards or in the mortgage deals and now they’re losing their houses as well as their credit.

In the meantime the federal government needs the money to run the world and start wars and build bases on every continent, meaning it doesn’t have enough to keep things like old bridges healthy. Sometimes those dots get to be inconvenient. But they don’t go away.