Two years ago, yesterday, in Minneapolis the I-35 W Mississippi River Bridge (known officially as Bridge 9340) like the London Bridge in the Nursery Rhyme came falling down during the peak of rush hour, 6:05 PM, CDT. The nursery rhyme is believed to date back to the early years of first millennium, when the Vikings led by Olaf II – later St. Olaf – burned down London Bridge over the Thames.
The Mississippi River Bridge was a few blocks away from the Metrodome where the Vikings play football, and a few blocks further from the historically significant St. Olaf’s Catholic Church. The collapse of that bridge for those who live in the area is one of those “I remember where I was when I heard” moments that will never be forgotten; I can only wonder if it will produce its own nursery rhyme to sustain that memory, or perhaps a new world adaptation. Nursery rhymes are used to entertain children, but so very often they originate in horrific events, brutal invasions for London Bridge Is Falling Down; the Bubonic Plague for Ring Around the Rosey, Pocket Full of Poesies. It would be appropriate.
The bridge that fell opened to traffic forty years earlier in 1967, as part of the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” project that began in 1956. It was replaced with the new I-35 W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge in September 2008; apparently it is bad luck to re-use the old name for a bridge when there are so many tragic deaths and injuries associated with it. The causes of the collapse have been attributed to a variety of problems; deficiencies in design, although it conformed to the requirements of the day when it was built; routinely heavier traffic than was ever anticipated when it was built.
Because the bridge had been the very worst site for treacherous black ice, it had been retro-fitted with temperature activated nozzles for de-icing the road surface in winter, which may have contributed to corrosion that weakened the bridge as well. The bridge was not under-inspected; there were years and years and years of analysis and inspections completed, just not any replacement and only the more urgently necessary repairs. Still, no one ever thought that one of the single most heavily traveled bridges in the state would fail. When it was built, it was intended to carry a load of 66,000 vehicles a day; when it fell, it was carrying closer to 150,000 vehicles a day, many of them heavy trucks and buses.
The old bridge that fell was pretty much the last new span across the Mississippi river in the metropolitan area, the end of the highway expansion boom, until the new replacement bridge was built. I traveled that bridge, often. On this anniversary, as we contemplate the investment in infrastructure by the Obama administration, we are contemplating nationwide, the similar deterioration of our infrastructure. Our bridges, our highways, the building from that same era are decaying, those that are not falling down yet.
Many of those who are fond of chanting that we are the greatest country in the world, we’re number one, haven’t paid attention to the changes in the last 50 to 60 years. We may very well have been ‘Number One’ when these structures were built, but we have performed only the minimum investment in maintaining our infrastructure, and even less in expanding it to keep up with our growth. We need to address our infrastructure, not so that we can boast that we are “Number One”, but so that the tragedy which resulted in the death of 13 people and injuries to over 100 others does not happen again, somewhere else in this country. We need to address our infrastructure because of the importance that our transportation system has to our commerce as well as our national security.
This is not a new problem, unique to our 20th and 21st centuries, finding the money for our public structures. In writing this article, I was reminded of a quotation from my American History classes, from Benjamin Franklin, “What vast additions to the conveniences and comforts of living might mankind have acquired, if the money spent in wars had been employed in works of public utility; what an extension of agriculture even to the tops of our mountains; what rivers rendered navigable, or joined by canals; what bridges, aqueducts, new road, and other public works, edifices, and improvement might not have been obtained by spending those millions in doing good, which in the last war have been spent in doing mischief.”
I am tired of being told that our founding fathers never intended us to have big government, that our infrastructure should be otherwise provided. There is no one who qualifies more than Benjamin Franklin as one of our founding fathers. I am tired of being told that we are overspending; we have under spent rather spectacularly in critical areas, while overspending just as spectacularly in others.
The crisis is as much or more in what we spent the money on as how much; generations of government, administrations both Republican AND Democratic, conservative AND liberal, are responsible for this neglect. WE are responsible for this neglect, and for its improvement, because it is our country, our infrastructure, our choice, and our resources that are involved.
We can address ourselves to the serious business of improving and expanding our infrastructure. Or we can begin to write new nursery rhymes for children. I know which choice seems the more adult to me. I prefer to be inspired not by nursery rhymes when it comes to our infrastructure, but by the words of 19th century English writer, John Ruskin, ” Along the iron veins that traverse the frame of our country, beat and flow the fiery pulses of its exertion, hotter and faster every hour. All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries into the central cities; the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds on the city gates.”