Friday, August 03, 2007

The I-35W Tragedy: Making the Unsettling Yet Necessary Connections

The tragic I-35W bridge collapse occurred
within a distinct political and social context.

Mindful of this, many people across the nation
are “making the connections”
and, as a result, calling
for a shift in
our social and economic priorities.

My friend Mary Lynn had the following letter published in today’s St. Paul Pioneer Press:

George Bush keeps warning us that if we don't “fight them (the terrorists) there, we’ll be fighting them here.” Meanwhile, all of the money we pour down the rat hole purportedly fighting terrorism in Iraq is desperately needed right here at home – to keep us safe from deteriorating infrastructure, among many other screaming necessities.

Whether it is a terrorist attack or a fallen bridge, people are dying here as well as there and will continue to do so as long as this ill-conceived, horribly managed war continues.

Mary Lynn Murphy
St. Paul

I appreciate Mary Lynn’s efforts to “make the connections” between the “war economy” of our nation (most obviously embodied in the U.S. government’s obscenely bloated military budget and the Bush Administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq) and our nation’s deteriorating civilian infrastructure.

A number of other letter writers (both to the Pioneer Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune) have highlighted such connections and, accordingly, the need to rethink our priorities with regards to the raising and spending of our tax dollars. For instance, one Oakdale, MN resident wrote:

Bridges fall, roads collapse. But the bridge wasn’t due for major work until later. Hogwash. It was no doubt “scheduled” for later. When budgets are cut, corners are cut, needs are postponed. Action is replaced by prioritized plans. We spend billions of dollars on a suspect foreign war and have only pennies to rebuild and repair our nation’s infrastructure. Which will defeat us? As a state and nation, we are fools if we think we can continue on this course. We have our own war right here at home. If we are to continue to exist as a nation, we must drop this “cut, cut taxes” mantra and repair and rebuild our state and national infrastructure: bridges, roads, water and sewer systems, education and public safety systems. Without these, our society dies.

Fred Matson

Joe Kay, writing for the World Socialist Web Site, digs even deeper.

In an August 2 online commentary, Kay notes that: “The I-35W bridge has been inspected on several occasions over the past six years, and has consistently received poor marks. A 2005 report by the US Department of Transportation found that it was ‘structurally deficient’ and gave the bridge a score of 50. Generally, a score of 50 or below means a bridge may need to be replaced. This particular bridge has been categorized as ‘structurally deficient’ since 1990.”

“Other reports found similar problems,” continues Kay. “A 2001 report by the University of Minnesota Department of Civil Engineering found that there were ‘many poor fatigue details’ that could cause serious problems in the future. However, it concluded that there was no need for immediate action and that ‘replacement of this bridge, and the associated very high cost, may be deferred’.”

Kay also reports that: “Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, has resisted calls within the state legislature for more spending on infrastructure. On Thursday, he sought to avoid any responsibility by pointing out that the previous reports did not recommend immediate action.”

“The Minneapolis bridge is hardly unique in its structural problems,” says Kay. “The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) has for years sought to call attention to the decaying national infrastructure. Its infrastructure report card for 2005 concluded: ‘As of 2003, 27.1 percent of the nation’s bridges (160,570) were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete . . .’ The report card gave an overall grade of ‘D’ to public infrastructure, and concluded that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to address problems with roads, bridges and other systems.”

Kay concludes his commentary with the following analysis – one which, though unsettling, undoubtedly needs to be heard:

For decades, social infrastructure in the US has been starved of resources, even as trillions of dollars have been funneled into the pockets of a small layer of the population. Hundreds of billions are spent every year on the US military, but when it comes to the physical infrastructure and basic social services, adequate funds are never available.

Minnesota was not so long ago considered one of the more socially progressive states in the country. Its politics were dominated by the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s branch of the Democratic Party. The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were often cited for maintaining a superior – by American standards – social network, as well as a better-than-average physical infrastructure. In recent years, the remnants of past reform policies have been abandoned in favor of the “free market” and fiscal austerity dogmas that dominate both the Democratic and Republican parties.

An integral part of the economic and social policies that have effectively redistributed the national wealth from the bottom to the top, vastly enriching the uppermost social layers at the expense of the working class and to the detriment of the material foundations of modern society – roads, bridges, levees, water, electricity – is the removal of virtually all legal restrictions and regulations on the profit-making activities of big business. This includes the enforcing of basic safety standards and the monitoring of companies that repair bridges.

In the United States, there is no “erring on the side of safety.” Infrastructure is allowed to decay until it must be replaced, an accident occurs, or there is some business interest involved. This can lead to tragic results. Just last month an underground steam pipe exploded in midtown Manhattan, killing one person and injuring dozens. In 2003, as a result of an overburdened and under-maintained transmission grid, a major blackout cut off power to large sections of the Midwest and Northeast United States, as well as parts of Canada.

The same tendencies were also present two years ago in the virtual destruction of a major American city, New Orleans, in Hurricane Katrina. For all the official talk about “securing the homeland,” the American people are more threatened by the neglect and incompetence of the government and the subordination of all social questions to the enrichment of a financial oligarchy than they are by terrorism.

To read Joe Kay’s commentary in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Tragedy in Minneapolis
Questioning God’s Benevolence in the Face of Tragedy

Image 1: Emergency personnel survey the remains of the collapsed I-35W bridge that spans the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, August 2, 2007. Divers searched for victims submerged in the swirling, murky waters of the Mississippi River on Thursday in what authorities said would be a slow and dangerous recovery operation after the worst U.S. bridge collapse in more than 20 years. (REUTERS/Scott Cohen)

Image 2: The scene of the collapsed I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, Thursday, August 2, 2007, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Image 3: Rescue workers care for the injured near the remains of the Interstate 35W bridge after it collapsed during the evening rush hour on Wednesday, August 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Tim Davis)

Image 4: A view of the collapsed I-35W bridge (Kyndell Harkness/Star Tribune)


eileen said...

This disgusts me.

And, as soon as I heard about it, I pretty much figured, if someone didn't blow it up, this was had to be the next plausible reason.


Dan said...

What had to be the next plausible reason? That we postponed replacing a bridge we knew was dangerous because it would cost too much? Do you have any evidence to show that the teams of engineers surveying these bridges were so negligent?

We don't even know why the bridge fell yet. This type of opportunistic propaganda where images of tragedy are used to make an unfounded political point is what disgusts me.

Michael J. Bayly said...


An “unfounded political point”?

There’s no question that funding for this country’s infrastructure is woefully inadequate. And there are clear (and political) reasons for this.

Did you know, for instance, that on the national level, the highway trust fund is about to go broke? When President Bush took office the fund had a $23 billion surplus, but it is expected to be running a deficit by next year in part because the president killed an increase in gas taxes two years ago.

Dan, no one's blaming the "engineers surveying these bridges"!

Democracy Now! reports that columnist Jim Hightower recently accused the government of deliberately defunding vital infrastructure projects in an effort to open the door to privatization. Investment firms including Goldman Sachs, the Carlyle Group, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are forming large funds to purchase publicly owned infrastructure projects. Don’t you find this disconcerting, to say the least?

My sense is that you feel that the issues and questions I raised in this post are too political for a discussion about this particular tragedy. Yet to not raise such questions and issues would itself be political in that it would be silently consenting to the status quo – including the political status quo.

In conclusion, I invite you to read the following by Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman:

Everything about this disaster – except the heroic efforts to rescue and recover the victims – has been steeped in politics. And the most calculated political effort has been the posturing and spinning by public officials trying to act commanding while making sure they don't get pinned with responsibility for the collapse.

Now, a president who doesn't believe that government can solve problems is coming [to visit the disaster site] because we have a big fat problem that is hard to ignore.

I'm sure he'll be received politely and thanked for his support. But after he leaves, we can get back to the work of finding out what happened and why.

Friday, the carillon atop City Hall was playing "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Cringe-inducing, but apt. A bridge is down, and we are troubled.

If you think everyone should play nice about it, you are living in Pollyanna Land. We are in a bare-knuckled political brawl in this country, and the government is in the hands of government haters who want to starve it or, in the alleged belief of presidential ally Grover Norquist, want to "drown it."

You can't drown government. It is people who drown.

Friday, the Taxpayers League – the heart of the No New Taxes beast – called on us not to point fingers. They probably disconnected their phone and took down their sign, too.

No New Taxes is not a slogan that works anymore. Remember Michael Bilandic? He was the Democratic mayor of Chicago until he forgot to plow the streets.

Bye-bye, Bilandic.

Not point fingers?

That means don't blame the people in charge for letting 140,000 vehicles a day – 1.7 every second – cross a bridge that wasn't fit for traffic.

No one knew it might fall? Give us a break. What do you need? They were talking about bolting plates on it to keep it up. Maybe duct tape was next.

Bottom line: It fell.

Is it political to be angry about that? So be it. Everything is politics. Politics is not a dirty word by itself. Politics builds bridges and schools and hospitals. And politics can make them fall down. Bad politics.

To read Coleman’s commentary in its entirety, click here.



Dan said...

I do not intend to defend any particular level of infrastructure funding. You clearly think that the current amount is insufficient. Let's say I agree with you.

Trying to use the collapse of this bridge to further your argument is wrong: we don't even know why the bridge fell yet. The bridge was doing what all structures do - wearing over time. NONE of the surveys performed predicted imminent failure. As far as I can tell they recommended various solutions to slow the wear and to prevent any fatal flaws from developing, but did not think there was any danger in the near future. In fact, had the steel plating reinforcement been approved it wasn't scheduled until 2008. The engineers clearly thought the yearly inspections would be sufficient.

My point is that you have no basis for your "unsettling yet necessary connections" at this time. The effect of what you're doing is to associate tragic images and raw emotions with your political criticisms. This is simply propaganda and not argument.

Michael J. Bayly said...


As Nick Coleman says, the “bottom line” is that the bridge fell.

Don’t you think that in an industrialized nation such as the US – the wealthiest in the world in monetary terms – such a structural failure of this magnitude should be considered untenable? Yet it happened.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable or an exercise in propaganda to examine and question the social and economic context within which this tragedy took place; to examine the rather obvious connections between the under-funding of this nation’s infrastructure, the woeful state of this infrastructure, and Wednesday’s disaster in the Twin Cities.

The article you cite clearly states that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDot) chose the “most cost efficient” of three options when it came to addressing the “aging” I-35W bridge.

Why should economic costs come into play at all when we’re making decisions about public safety?

It’s immoral to have such important decisions be dictated by concerns about “cost efficiency” and, in the case of health-care, by profit for some corporation.

Yet within our unfettered capitalistic system, such consideration of costs and profits go unquestioned by the corporate media and by large segments of the public who have been conditioned (propagandized?) into not seeking to make the connections or ask the difficult and unsettling questions.

Dan, I’m clearly not arguing from a capitalist perspective, but rather from one that puts human life above issues of “cost efficiency” and profit. Some would call this a socialist perspective. My sense is that it’s this particular perspective (and perhaps the word “socialism” itself) – along with your understanding of its political meaning and implications – that you’re so strongly reacting to.

I make no apologies for this perspective. And if you consider it “propaganda,” then that’s your issue. I don’t.

It’s a political perspective – one of many that can and should be employed when talking about and seeking to understand and hopefully prevent future tragedies of this kind.

And as I said before, it’s even political to not raise questions and assertions about “connections,” as this would be giving tacit support to the status quo –the political status quo. You can’t escape politics.

Though it would seem that what’s a “political perspective” for some is “propaganda” for others.

In conclusion, here are excerpts from a commentary by Barry Grey. Judge for yourself if it’s mere “propaganda” or a credible social and political perspective, complete with supporting facts and figures, of which the citizens of this country need, at the very least, to be aware if they are to engage in informed discussion about the important issues facing this nation, and indeed the world.

Media news anchors, commentators and editorialists have noted that the Minnesota bridge disaster is a symptom of a neglected and rotting infrastructure. Many have pointed to the 2005 report card on America’s infrastructure issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the country a “D” and warned of dire consequences unless a crash program were undertaken to fix the problem. Bridges actually fared comparatively well in the engineers’ report, with a grade of “C.” The country’s aviation system, dams, drinking water, electric power grid and hazardous waste system were deemed even worse, and given a “D.”

But the media reaction to the engineers’ conclusion that it will cost $1.6 trillion over five years to repair the infrastructure is to present such a sum as impossibly high. There is no such questioning of the estimated $450 billion already spent on the war in Iraq or the ongoing weekly outlay of $1.8 billion, not to mention the $533 billion Pentagon budget or the $555 billion in tax cuts for the rich enacted by the Bush administration and Congress in 2001.

What is not broached, let alone discussed, is why the nation’s material and social foundation has been brought to such a state. That is not surprising, because the answers constitute a devastating indictment of the American political and corporate ruling elite and the profit system which they uphold.

Whatever the specific cause of the Minnesota bridge disaster, the underlying reason is the indifference, incompetence and negligence of the government, and the fact that the US is a capitalist society, in which the accumulation of vast personal wealth by a small percentage of the population is deemed more important than the welfare of the people as a whole.

The decay of the material underpinnings of American society has gone hand in hand with a relentless assault on social welfare programs and the jobs and living standards of the working population. It is the product of nearly three decades of uninterrupted social and political reaction. . . .

Hundreds of millions of people in the US rely on complex social systems to provide the essentials of life: food, water, electricity, transportation, health care, education. The failure of these systems reduces the population to conditions of barbarism, as was seen on a mass scale in the Gulf Coast two years ago.

Working people perform the labor that keeps these systems going, but they have no say in their operation. These systems are for the most part owned and controlled by giant corporations, for whom profit, not human need, is the decisive criterion. Those systems that are nominally controlled by the government, such as roads and bridges, are likewise subordinated to profit interests, through the control of the political system by the wealthy elite.

In the case of America’s bridges, the anarchy and irrationality are palpable. There is no national plan for the maintenance of the system. Decisions on repair and construction of vital economic and social lifelines are left to the states and localities, and oversight is divided between all three levels of government.

The most salient and noxious expression of the irrational and socially destructive character of the profit system is the massive concentration of wealth at the very top of society. According to a recent study, in 2005 the top one-tenth of one percent of the US population (some 300,000 people) had nearly as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans.

That the wealth exists to pay the $1.6 trillion which the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates is needed to upgrade the country’s infrastructure—and more—is demonstrated by a few facts. Forbes magazine reported earlier this year that there are 946 billionaires around the world, with a combined wealth of $3.5 trillion. Last December, Christmas bonuses paid to Wall Street executives topped $100 billion. That figure alone is more than twice the annual federal allocation of $40 billion for the country’s roads and bridges.

To read Barry Grey’s commentary in its entirety, click here.

Michael J. Bayly said...


You probably should read this.

Here’s an excerpt:

Internal MnDOT [Minnesota Department of Transportation] documents reviewed by the Star Tribune reveal that last year bridge officials talked openly about the possibility of the bridge collapsing – and worried that it might have to be condemned.

The documents provide the first look inside MnDOT's decision-making process as engineers weighed benefits and risks, wrestling with options to prevent what they believed was a remote but real possibility of the eight-lane freeway bridge failing.

Their concerns were not generalized, documents show. The San Francisco-based consultant, URS Inc., identified 52 crucial steel box beams deemed most susceptible to cracking. URS also had a specific recommendation that 24 of the 52 members be reinforced while the remainder would be kept on a special watch.

Video of the August 1 collapse being examined by the National Transportation Safety Board shows the bridge first falling on the south end over its shoreline pier – a section of the superstructure where eight suspect beams were specifically tagged for reinforcing. . .

[A]t least three internal documents suggest that money was a consideration [in deciding when to address the identified concerns about the bridge].