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August 20, 2007

Political Aftereffects of the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse


The most shocking thing, to me, is all the survivors. When I first heard that the I-35W Bridge collapsed in downtown Minneapolis – in the middle of the evening rush hour on August 1, sending cars into the Mississippi River below – I assumed to later hear about a death toll in the hundreds. In fact, two weeks after the collapse, there were only 11 confirmed dead, with two more bodies not yet found.

As a native of the Minneapolis area, this tragedy hits especially close to home for me, even though I didn't know anyone who was on or near the bridge. I had been on the bridge dozens of times, including once last year when my father and I gave my wife's father, grandfather and brother-in-law a tour of the Twin Cities.

The first responders and police in Minneapolis, as well as the city and state government, deserve credit for their handling of the situation, which saved many lives. We've seen what happens when a disaster is met by incompetent leadership at every level, so credit is due to those who did their jobs in an exemplary manner that day.

Two weeks after the tragedy, it remains unclear what exactly caused the collapse, and likely will continue to be so for quite some time. But that hasn't stopped what we've seen with just about every American calamity of the past couple decades – the intrusion of politics into tragedy, and the tragedy being used as an excuse for political ax-grinding.

Many liberals reacted by blaming the collapse, on some level, on the Republican culture of small government, which put tax cuts ahead of necessary government spending. Conservatives, meanwhile, reacted incredulously, with the usual "how dare you blame everything on Bush, and invoke politics at a time like this!" (To some on the right, alas, it's always "a time like this.") 

With Minnesota's baseball team, the Twins, scheduled to break ground that morning on a new downtown ballpark, those morally opposed to publicly financed sports venues were handed a propaganda victory. After all, what's the state doing committing $400 million in public money when our bridges are falling apart? Meanwhile, the question of rebuilding quickly devolved into yet another argument over whether union labor would be used for the work, and whether the pro- or anti-union side was "holding up the project" by not immediately caving.

There's no question that infrastructure spending has been one of the more prominent of the many casualties necessitated by the conservative governance of the past seven years. But that's even more true in Minnesota, as GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been much more of a fiscal hardliner than President Bush has ever pretended to be.

Rather than embracing the Grover Norquist idea of "starving the beast" of government, the president’s fiscal philosophy has been to counter liberal "tax and spend" policy with the even-more-controversial policy of "spend, but don't tax."

Conservative Republican governors such as Pawlenty, on the other hand, are handcuffed both by state laws requiring balanced budgets, and ideological mandates to cut taxes drastically and cut spending even more drastically than that. Pawlenty, indeed, either vetoed or threatened to veto more than $7 billion of infrastructure improvements in the last few years as governor.

However, none of these matters of public spending is a clear either/or. And besides, even if we had a state or federal government in which elected officials said yes to everything and money was no object, that doesn't guarantee the bridge wouldn't have still collapsed. It's not like anyone has stepped forward to say "Yes, I noticed that exact problem and asked it to be fixed, and the government said ‘No’. Why didn't they listen to me?"

Pawlenty, meanwhile, before the bodies were so much as out of the water, has already begun rushing plans for reconstruction, with the names of contractors already being floated. Minneapolis/St. Paul just happens to be hosting the Republican convention next summer, and bridge construction either already completed or well underway would certainly mark a political and PR victory for both Pawlenty and the party.

The governor denies any connection, but if he really is putting his own political interests ahead of respect for the victims and the safety of the new bridge, it would be the biggest howler of its kind since . . . well, since the last Republican convention, which was planned for New York just days before the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

At any rate, even a determined effort to get the bridge built by next year would likely fail. I know from my wife, a civil engineer who designs and inspects bridges, that design, engineering, and construction delays on bridges are commonplace, and rarely (if ever) are they built on time – especially huge, high-traffic bridges like the one to be built in Minneapolis. If the new bridge is completed before 2010, I'll be shocked.

So where does Minnesota go from here? The state should take every precaution in figuring out what happened to cause the collapse, and to make sure the new bridge built in its place is safely and expertly built, without regard to the timing of elections or political conventions. Minnesota is lucky to have lost so few people in the tragedy. What's important now is to honor the memory of those who lost their lives by rebuilding in an honorable way.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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