FREE SPEECH ZONE | A Few Plain Thoughts on the 5-Year Anniversary of the 35W Bridge Collapse

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On the evening of August 1, 2007 I got a call from my brother telling me to turn on my TV, the bridge over the Mississippi just went down. “Which one?” I asked. “Washington Avenue? Not sure.” I turned on the TV to ‘CCO and there before me was the big, green, ugly 35W bridge that I had driven over so many times that it was a mindless exercise.

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And it was in the river.

“Holy sh*t… what the hell? What the HELL?? Uhh… I’ll call you back.”

It took me quite awhile to understand what I was seeing. And then I remember starting to cry, watching the people on the bridge, in the water, on the banks, and the smoke pouring out of that school bus, and I remember just saying over and over again “My city… my city…”

I called my wife, who was out on the road at that moment heading to Blaine or something, just to make sure she hadn’t decided to take that way for whatever reason on this evening. Then I called my job to inform them of the incident and see if they’d heard from anyone. I texted all my friends. A few minutes later, my manager called me. Doing a head count of everyone at the store. To make sure no one had died.

And I think we forget all about that. 13 souls died that day. The thing I’ve learned is that Minnesotans sort of have the tendency to internalize painful experiences. The public expression of this, then, is to sweep unpleasant things under the rug, pretend they’re not there. Give them their due moment and then go back to being with family and friends. But don’t dwell; that’s not healthy. Keep it positive. And if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. So we don’t talk about 13 dead humans and put them in their proper context of dying on a bridge that we as a society are charged with upkeeping.

Well, I didn’t grow up here. I’m a dweller, and sometimes I don’t just say nice, positive things.

So I guess I’ll just say it: five years later, I still don’t think we particularly care that 13 people died in the 35W bridge collapse. I think we probably care less. We had a really great memorial service. And then a public processional a year afterward. And then we had a new bridge. (Months early and millions under budget! Taxpayers rejoice!) And then, after a few years of politicking over whether or not we really needed to memorialize this thing further, we finally erected a monument to those 13 people who purposelessly lost their lives in the wreckage. And then a few weeks after it opened, someone vandalized it.

But the real crime? We haven’t invested another dime into our infrastructure. No, seriously: after this all went down, we had to friggin’ fight tooth and nail to invest a NICKEL (a 5% gas tax increase) into our infrastructure. People are dying on our failing bridges and overcrowded highways, and we’re too busy talking about what? What are the new distractions this year? Voter ID? Gay marriage? Arguing over a 3.5% tax hike on people whose net worth increases at such a rate that they could, in the time it would take them to drive across the Mississippi that day, pay for two or three 35W bridge replacements? Oh, and we also just wrapped up the argument over whether or not you and I should spend three times (or four, maybe five?) the cost of that replacement bridge on a shiny new football stadium. For people whose contracts dictate that every time they touch the football, they earn enough money to…

I digress.

But seriously, folks, what gives?

For me, 13 dead people on a bridge made me stop, think, and seriously evaluate what was going on with this whole system. In a very real way, that could have just as easily been ME on that bridge. And it made me want to act, to DO something, because I knew (somewhat cynically but also, in hindsight, sadly true) that basically nobody would do anything about it. I felt moved to get to know the politics, the policies, the environment, and yeah, gain a vision for how on earth we can prevent this sort of thing from happening. The following winter, after a few years of sitting it out, I started to pry myself away from my comfy little coffee shop job and get back to work finishing up school. And five years later, I’ve graduated from the University of Minnesota.

My degree? A Bachelor of Science in Urban Studies, with an emphasis in Infrastructure and Environment. And minors in Political Science, Sustainability Studies, and Geography. To, as they say, boot.

So I feel I’m standing on fairly confident ground when I say, yeah, I care that 13 people died on August 1, 2007. I won’t be so insensitive as to suggest that, somehow, I’ve “honored” each of their deaths by going and getting all learned-up or whatever. There is no fancy, foil-embossed piece of paper on my wall, no policy, no political party that can bring those 13 people back to life for their families and friends. But the barest-minimum, very least thing we can do is try to prevent it from happening again.

And 5 years later, my “expert” opinion? We’re not even willing to do that.

Because it’d be super-expensive. All those bridges to repair and rebuild, roads to maintain, and transit systems to expand. We can’t even begin to imagine the price tag, nor do we want to, because we know it’s super-expensive. And where are we going to get the tax dollars, anyway? Aren’t we busy giving them to “job creators”? This is all too super-expensive and mind-numbing, let’s go talk about voter ID and gay marriage. Those are simpler and don’t cost anything*. (*note: they totally do.)

And I think that’s where the rubber meets the proverbial road: cost. We think things “cost” too much. Roads. Trains. Health care. Social Security. Welfare. We all flip. the heck. out. over some imaginary public purse that we personally put all our hard-earned money into and then self-righteously pontificate when some other person – probably you, you lazy freeloader – takes it all out and spends it on pointless things like Cheetos, cigarettes, and public art. And then we go and vote for people who we believe will “cost” us the least. And usually, they do. Or at least, they don’t raise our taxes. I mean, sure, they give away the taxes we HAVE paid to upper-crust tax cuts, onerous voter identification systems, and millionaire football playgrounds…

Again, digression. Sorry ‘bout that.

So, here’s my simple proposal. We need some other currency with which to calculate the “cost” of everything, ‘cuz this whole argument over money is getting endlessly pointless. In fact, I’ve just given away my proposal: we should calculate the cost of our policies with something NOT endless and NOT pointless.

Like, say, human life.

In the state of Minnesota, by this calculation, our failure to properly maintain our infrastructure has cost us, already, at least 13 human lives. Gone, spent.

Our failure to properly regulate firearms and offer adequate mental health support, among other things?

Why, that cost us 12 lives just a few days ago.

Failure to provide adequate health insurance and medical services to people?

Better go grab a few Wall Street number-crunchers to calculate that one.

Maybe this thought exercise is a teense overwrought, but you get the idea. Policy affects people. I’d go so far as to say that policy IS people. And here comes the SUPER overwrought part, for I wouldn’t be worth my salt as a liberal arts grad if I didn’t dig in to the classical languages: those first four letters – “poli” – are, after all, rooted from the Greek word for “city” or “body of citizens”. Or, my personal favorite, “community”.

Policy is people, my friend.

Surely a word with such ancient roots must have seen a lot of use over the years. My gut feeling – and quite cursory knowledge of history – leads me to believe that over the years, when policy is used for self-focused line items instead of systemic, poli-focused initiatives, these cities, bodies of citizens, communities, whatever… they don’t last long. When people start counting the cost of policies according to, say, money and not human lives, we not only create disintegrative policy, we cheapen life itself through those policies. And right now in Minnesota, as in America, human life can probably be found in the penny section of the Bargain Nook in any number of thrift stores in the shadiest parts of town*. (*note: No thrift stores were offended during the construction of this sentence.*) (*note to the note: I love thrift stores. Shop ‘em all the time.)

If you get to know me well enough, you’ll know I’m going to wrap this up soon and that in the next few sentences there will be some sort of, as they say in the not-for-profit advocacy world, an “action item”. But I’m going to throw a curveball, and say:

By all means, don’t do anything. For real. Carry on. No harm, no foul, right?

Because the more we don’t do anything, the more we believe that policy is pointless, that the government is the problem, that the cost is too high to take care of one another by making sure our bridges don’t fall, the less it will cost us.

And the more people we will drown at the bottom of the Mississippi.

Then we’ll call each other when terrible things happen, watch them unfold on live TV, act all surprised for about a week, maybe build a monument if it was particularly shocking, and then forget about it until the next terrible thing happens.

Sadly, I think we’re totally okay with that.

But please, feel free – since it’s always about freedom – to prove me wrong.