A bridge falls in Minneapolis


VOICES: What do we say when elected officials, driven by ideology, oppose investment in public infrastructure and the taxes to pay for those investments?

When disaster strikes, union members often are the first to respond. We saw that in New York City and Washington, D.C. in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. We saw that here in Minneapolis yesterday.

Opinion: A bridge falls in Minneapolis

The busy Interstate 35W bridge spanning the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed yesterday during evening rush hour. The morning newspaper today reported nine people dead, 20 people missing, and 60 people taken to area hospitals. The missing and wounded included an Operating Engineers union member working on the bridge and AFSCME members inspecting construction work on the bridge.

Local, state and federal officials spoke and took questions at a news conference this morning. Mark Rosenker, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the NTSB already has begun investigating the collapse of the bridge but that a final report could take as long as a year.

Rosenker credited the quick response of local emergency responders for saving many lives. Officials spoke of the heroism of responders, who climbed onto the wreckage of the fallen bridge, pulled victims from cars, and even swam in the river to reach partially submerged vehicles. These heroes include members of the Minneapolis Police Department and Minneapolis Fire Department — who are union members — as are many of the public safety personnel from throughout the Twin Cities who also came to assist at the scene.

Ambulances took victims to Hennepin County Medical Center, where union nurses are members of the Minnesota Nurses Association and other union staff are AFSCME members.

Other public employees who worked into the night in response to the tragedy included Minneapolis Street Department crews, who worked with police to erect traffic barriers, and Metro Transit employees, who worked to redirect bus routes and plan for additional buses for today’s commute.

At this time, the names of the people killed or hurt have not been released to the public. More fatalities should be expected, police officials said.

The Interstate 35W bridge is a heavily-traveled bridge at the heart of the Twin Cities’ highway system. The impact of the bridge’s fall will be felt for years to come.

The region’s highway system — already one of the nation’s most congested — will be stressed further as commuters seek detours until a new bridge is built. The extra travel time and extra congestion will cost everyone time and money. And replacing the bridge could take years.

In statements today, government officials (and union leaders) expressed sympathy for everyone whose loved ones happened to be on the bridge at just exactly the wrong moment.

A common refrain: let’s know the results of the NTSB investigation before casting blame.

Few public figures, however, are stating what most Minnesotans know: in each of the past two legislative sessions, Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a transportation bill that would have provided funding for road and bridge repair and construction as well as funding for mass transit. Pawlenty vetoed the bills, in part, because he would not support an increase in the state’s gas tax to fund state transportation needs — even though the tax hasn’t been raised in almost 20 years.

(Pawlenty, by the way, also has cut Local Government Aid to the state’s counties and cities, resulting in cuts to police, fire, public works and transit — all now the agencies responding to yesterday’s disaster).

Even if the NTSB investigation holds the Pawlenty administration faultless for the collapse of the I-35W bridge, Pawlenty surely must be held accountable for the state’s lack of investment in transportation. That lack of investment now impacts the region’s ability to cope with the loss of the I-35W bridge.

We’ve been warned for years that our state’s — and our nation’s — infrastructure is in dire need of investment. Mary Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in Minneapolis today acknowledged that 70,000 bridges nationwide fall into the same safety category as the bridge that fell in Minneapolis.

President Bush today urged prayers for the victims of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, but then, moving on to remarks about the federal budget, went on to say he opposes new federal spending and tax increases.

If the I-35W bridge had been attacked by terrorists, we would be condemning a small group of individuals, driven by ideology, for their act of violence and destruction.

What do we say when elected officials, driven by ideology, oppose investment in public infrastructure and the taxes to pay for those investments?

Steve Share wrote this article for his blog on the AFL-CIO site, http://blog.aflcio.org