A bridge too far

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I don’t normally fear for my life. Minnesota bridges have changed my mind.

I work two and a half miles from my home, a commute that should take five or six minutes. Since the I-35W Mississippi Bridge collapse, Cleveland/Raymond Avenue traffic spiked, doubling my drive time.

Opinion: A bridge too far

Ten to twelve minutes is nothing to whine about. I’m not driving 45 rush hour minutes from Hugo or Shakopee. But, every day I relieve my traffic crawl stress by contemplating bridge safety. I wish I could think about something, anything other than bridge safety but trains tend to focus the mind.

Inching down Raymond, I calculate the likelihood that I’ll have to stop directly under the Canadian Pacific’s railroad bridge. I’m reasonably confident that the bridge won’t collapse but I’m more confident that I’ll be instantly killed if it does. I’m not sure which is more comforting.

Like many Minnesotans, I wish that I didn’t have to worry about bridge and road safety. I’d rather worry about my kids’ future, global climate change, my wife’s Christmas present, my great aunt’s health or if I should even bother trying for Springsteen concert tickets. Instead, I worry about a railroad bridge’s safety rating.

I wish Governor Pawlenty shared my concern. He doesn’t appear to do so. Every day, news reports reveal a deeply troubled and increasingly incapable state department of transportation. Every day, the Governor finds something else to discuss.

This week, for example, as an emergency I-35W/Highway 62 crosstown bridge inspection stopped traffic for two hours during Monday’s afternoon commute, stranding thousands, Governor Pawlenty was talking up his arctic trip will explorer Will Steger. Yes, the endangered polar bear population is a unique climate change barometer but angry drivers register a different kind of steam.

Pawlenty doesn’t share my experience. He has a State Highway Patrol driver and security detail. I have two kids’ booster seats and the MPR pledge drive broadcast. Guess which one of us gets caught in traffic?

This begs a hypothetical question: if Pawlenty had been caught in that traffic jam, would he have played the “Governor” card to siren his way along the shoulders, getting ahead of everyone else?

I think that we all know the answer.

On Wednesday, the state public employees union, AFSCME, which represents Minnesota’s bridge inspectors, sponsored a Halloween “scary bridge” tour. It included the Highway 52/Lafayette Bridge, a bridge I drive with some regularity.

Reading the safety reports and listening to bridge inspectors, I’m more convinced than ever that I should fear for my life when I cross the Lafayette Bridge.

Normally, a governor, faced with evidence of systemic transportation department failure, would act. He’d fire the senior political leadership, appointment competent professionals, and craft a transportation funding package that secures the department’s footing.

We don’t have that governor. We have a governor who is invoking foreign policy/terrorism themes while jerking around a Minnesota steel plant’s construction. It’s a terrific deflection of a critically pressing transportation problem.

In the meantime, I contemplate bridge safety. It’s not an abstract question but a real one; will this bridge collapse while I’m crossing it? That question yields, though, to a more pressing one: when will the public’s safety interest prompt Governor Pawlenty to invest in Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure?

Replacing collapsed bridges isn’t progress. It’s an admission of failure.