News & Politics

Are the Dead From the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Victims of Conservative Ideology?

After swallowing 30 years of small-government rhetoric, our infrastructure, once the pride of the developed world, is falling apart around us. We're reaping what we've sown.
The tragic collapse this week of a stretch of I-35 spanning the Mississippi river in Minnesota was shocking but should come as no surprise. America's core infrastrucure has been falling apart in very visible ways during the past few years. It's a predictable outcome of the rise of "backlash" conservatism; we've swallowed 30 years of small-government rhetoric, and it's led us to a point in which our infrastructure, once the pride of the developed world, is falling apart around us. We're reaping what we've sown.

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, reacted to the disaster by calling a press conference and, with a steely determination worthy of Rudy Guiliani, lying to the American people. Pawlenty insisted that inspections in 2005 and 2006 had found no structural problems with the bridge. But the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the bridge "was rated as 'structurally deficient' two years ago and possibly in need of replacement." The bridge was borderline -- with a 50 sufficiency rating; if a bridge scores less than 50, it needs to be replaced.

According to the Pioneer Press, the bridge's suspension system was supposed to receive extra attention with inspections every two years, but the last one had been performed in 2003.

The governor had every reason to obfuscate; in 2005, he vetoed a bipartisan transportation package that would have "put more than $8 billion into highways, city and county roads, and transit over the next decade." At the time, he was applauded by many Republicans for his staunch fiscal "conservatism."

It's too soon to say for sure what caused this latest disaster, but as Stephen Flynn wrote in Popular Mechanics, when all is said and done, "investigators will likely find that two factors contributed to its failure: age and heavy use." Those conditions are anything but isolated:
According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation's 590,750 bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation's bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars.
It was the second U.S. bridge collapse this week -- a span in California fell the day before, with far fewer injuries and no loss of life. The tragedy occurred just weeks after an 80-year-old steam pipe in Manhattan blew up, killing one and injuring dozens more. A year earlier, a section of tunnel in Boston collapsed, killing a woman as she drove home. A year before that, hundreds of thousands of Americans became refugees after New Orleans' pitiable levees collapsed -- a graphic illustration of shortsighted public policy if ever there was one. The AFL-CIO estimates that more than one in four roads are in "less than good condition." Minnesota ranks low on their list, with about one in eight failing to make the grade.

It's all part of a larger picture. We have a crumbling power grid and are falling behind the rest of the world in broadband infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) talks of "congested highways, overflowing sewers and corroding bridges" that are "constant reminders of the looming crisis that jeopardizes our nation's prosperity and our quality of life." Every year the engineering society issues a report card grading 15 categories of America's once-premier infrastructure. In 2005, that "core" infrastructure collectively got a "D-," slightly worse than the "D" it received in 2000. Ironically, the nation's bridges received the highest score -- a "C" -- in 2005.

Experts have been warning of our gradually disintegrating infrastructure for years. ASCE's engineers estimate that it would take an investment of $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years to bring it up to modern standards. That investment would create of tens of thousands of decent jobs and, most economists agree, would likely unleash a new wave of productivity growth. But just as Minnesota's Pawlenty vetoed an increase in that state's highway funds so he could play a fiscal conservative in TV commercials, the GOP-controlled Congress rejected a Democratic proposal in 2002 that would have increased highway funding by $4 billion in a straight party-line vote (because they couldn't stand the fact that the bill also called for a minimum wage increase and an extension of unemployment benefits -- ultimately, a pork-laden version with nothing for workers did pass in 2005). Governance, ultimately, is a matter of priorities, and infrastructure takes a back seat.

One of the primary reasons for that is that there aren't organized constituents lobbying for public goods like highways and bridges -- people take those things for granted. A thousand grifters have gained office promising to cut taxes as if they existed in a vacuum, without mentioning the cost; no politician has ever won office promising to keep highways from collapsing on their constituents. For 30 years, we've been told by a series of right-wing snake-oil salesmen that they could deliver more and better public services while constantly cutting the taxes that pay for them, but it was always a fraud. The result is that the United States enjoys the third-lowest tax burden among the 30 most advanced economies as its public spaces gradually come apart at the seams.

I would argue that skimping out on infrastructure investments in the name of a low tax burden is a triumph of ideology over commonsense, but it goes beyond that. Conservative philosophy stresses limited government, not bad government, and nothing can change the fact that the public sector remains the only way to organize collectively when there's no profit involved. So nobody seriously believes that the the hidden hand of capitalism is going to step in and inspect and repair bridges that are open to the public. When lawmakers don't fund that work, they know full well that it won't get done.

What's more, the evidence that infrastructure investments result in increased economic productivity is fairly conclusive; some studies have estimated that every dollar invested in public infrastructure yields 104 percent return through increases in productivity (PDF).

So something more is going on. Stephen Flynn says, "Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives."

Perhaps. And perhaps it has to do with American exceptionalism -- in every other country, citizens understand that their society is as good as they make it, while many of ours seem to believe that we're a leading nation according to some divine plan and no amount of bone-headed governance and skewed priorities can ever change that fact.

That's something to ponder as you drive over that bridge or through that tunnel on the way home.
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.
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