Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Bridge collapse reveals system faults

AMERICA'S love of the automobile is a well-worn cliche, but seems the lover can be a cheapskate when it comes to spending on infrastructure. Or maybe it's how politicians misjudge what's necessary to maintain popularity.

At least five people are known to have died in the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minnesota. What caused the collapse is still being investigated. But writing from Minneapolis, Susan Saulny and Jennifer Steinhauer point out in the New York Times that "In the past two years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota twice vetoed legislation to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for transportation needs".

Pawlenty, a Republican, may be having a rethink. “He believes we need to do everything we can to address this situation and the extraordinary costs,” says an aide.

"Even as the cause of the bridge disaster here remains under investigation, the collapse is changing a lot of minds about spending priorities, " say the two US reporters. "It has focused national attention on the crumbling condition of America’s roadways and bridges — and on the financial and political neglect they have received in Washington and many state capitals.

"Despite historic highs in transportation spending, the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need, has typically driven where much of the money goes. That has often meant construction of new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones.

"Further, transportation and engineering experts said, lawmakers have financed a boom in rail construction that, while politically popular, has resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by a vast majority of American commuters.

"Representative James L. Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota and the chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, sent out a news release last month boasting about Minnesota’s share of a recent transportation and housing appropriations bill.

"Of the $12 million secured for the state, $10 million is slated for a new 40-mile commuter rail line to Minneapolis, called the Northstar. The remaining $2 million is divided among a new bike and walking path and a few other projects, including highway work and interchange reconstruction.
The $286 billion federal transportation legislation passed by Congress in 2005 included more than 6,000 earmarks, which amounted to blatant gifts to chosen districts, including the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in rural Alaska (that earmark was later removed after a political uproar)".

Federal money tends to be earmarked for construction, not maintenance State politicians may decide where a road should go. “The bottom line,” says Senator Charles E. Schumer, “is that routine but important things like maintenance always get shortchanged because it’s nice for somebody to cut a ribbon for a new structure.”

A study released in May by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young found that 83 percent of the nation’s transportation infrastructure was not capable of meeting the country’s needs over the next 10 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers, in its latest national report card, gave transportation infrastructure a D.

"Meanwhile, there are urgent needs. The Interstate highway system turned 50 last year and is showing signs of age and inadequate upkeep. Around St. Louis, for instance, old bridges, rocky roads and tight ramp loops have led to a shutdown of parts of Interstate 64/Highway 40 — one of the most important corridors in the state — until late 2009".

America's national highway system, originally called the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, came into being under the Eisenhower administration. It was spurred by fears of a mobility crisis if the country were attacked in a nuclear war. By the 1970s much of the system was completed.
But since then, the nation’s highways have eroded with age and use.

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