OPINION | When things fall down

Print

It is the unyielding nature of the universe that things fall apart. Molecules destabilize. Mountains crumble. Bleachers collapse. Given enough time, things immutably fall apart as the universe seeks maximum homogeneity.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it. Because we are human, we impose order and will on an indifferent macrocosmic universe. We routinely build structures with the implicit understanding that, absent regular maintenance and recapitalization, our structures will eventually fail. No matter how well we build bleachers or bridges, they will eventually collapse.

Unexpected collapse, on the other hand, really gets people riled up.

Sunday evening, during Circus Juventas’ final season performance, a bleacher section collapsed. 450 people fell no more than six feet. Several were transported to area hospitals. None were seriously injured. Many woke Monday morning with aches and pains but no one died.

We don’t expect bleacher sections to collapse without warning. Two years ago, when the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapsed, Minnesotans said exactly the same thing: bridges don’t just fall down.

What happened?

In St Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood, in the Circus Juventas’ tent, just as with the 35W bridge, the structure was unable to bear the assigned load. When weight exceeds capacity, something has to give. Sunday night, it was a bleacher section. Two years ago, it was an entire interstate highway bridge in dramatic, cascading fashion.

After the dust settles and the shock wears off, people legitimately ask “isn’t someone supposed to inspect stuff like this?” Well, yes and no.

According to news reports, the City of Saint Paul inspected Circus Juventas’ bleachers at their 2006 purchase and inspection point. The 35W Bridge was, as we’ve subsequently learned, frequently inspected because Minnesota Department of Transportation officials were concerned that the bridge’s structural integrity was at increased risk of failing. It crumbled anyway.

I checked the City of Saint Paul’s website for an update on the bleacher collapse but found nothing. The news section included a summary of the Mayor’s budget address, an obit on Como Park Zoo’s Sparky the Seal V, and a Project Runway screening but no bleacher collapse investigation notes.

Recent news accounts note letters released to media but I couldn’t find copies on the city’s main website, the Department of Parks & Rec’s website, or the Department of Safety and Inspections website. I found tons of useful assistance engaging departmental services, including contact information for related but non-city agencies but no letter.

Clicking on Mayor Coleman’s “priorities” button, he doesn’t specifically address inspections. That’s unsurprising. Government inspection is an activity that Minnesotans take for granted. We assume that our bridges, bleachers, carnival rides, restaurants and public facilities are safe and regularly inspected. The ugly little secret? Things aren’t inspected nearly as often as we assume.

Why?

Because inspectors cost money. Between state budget cuts and unilateral reduction in local government aid, the state-local revenue sharing program, inspection budgets have been cut just like library, rec centers, fire protection and law enforcement budgets. Something has to give. Inspectors, as it turns out, don’t get around much anymore.

The City of Saint Paul inspections, like most governments’, operate more from complaints rather than a regular schedule. New construction or new businesses are inspected as a matter of permit-granting course prior to opening but after that, once a business is operating and absent complaint, inspections staff has to cover considerable ground with progressively fewer resources. Consequently, we get what we pay for.

Less government, conservatives’ Minnesota public policy goal, means fewer government services. Reduced revenue means smaller budgets leading, in turn, to fewer services, like reduced inspections. If we begin to feel less safe it’s because we are less safe.

Entropy. Things will fall apart. With fewer inspections and less regulation, keys to a strong business climate and a growing economy, things will fall apart faster.

We shouldn’t have to wait for the next bleacher or bridge collapse to realize that public safety requires regular investment. We can change and act on our priorities. In return, we’re stronger, safer and freer.

Support people-powered non-profit journalism! Volunteer, contribute news, or become a member to keep the Daily Planet in orbit.