Line One
Downshift
We’ve come to the bridge

By Bill Hudgins
columnist

 

For the past couple of months, my friend and ace gearjammer Rufus Sideswipe hasn’t quite been himself. I was riding with him recently, enjoying the scenery, when I heard him mumble something as we came up on a long bridge. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

He shook his head, then said, “I used to enjoy crossing

bridges – enjoyed the view, the feeling of flying instead of just rolling on concrete. But not since that bridge fell in Minneapolis. Now, I just say, ‘Lord, please get under that thing and push up.’ ”

Anything that makes Rufus edgy makes me really nervous. I instantly remembered how many times I have sat on a bridge in traffic, feeling it go up and down as the vehicles moved on and off. Gulp.

Aug. 1, 2007, is a day that many truckers will remember for a long time. On that day, without warning, the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis gave way. A nearby security camera caught the event on tape. Crack – one end just suddenly drops. Clouds of dust rise. Snap – the other end collapses, billowing dust obscuring it.

“I hardly ever run up that way,” Rufus said, “but I wondered how many drivers crossed that bridge just a few minutes before or earlier that day? How many were coming up on it? How many are like me now, wondering if every bridge they come to is about to give way?”

The American Society of Civil Engineers reports more than one-fourth of our 600,000 bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete” – meaning they were designed for less traffic or different traffic loads. Some might consider that the “good” news. In 1992, more than one-third of all bridges were ranked this way.

For the record, the I-35 bridge didn’t have supports in the river; instead, it had a long steel arch. About 700 other bridges in the U.S. have similar designs.

The bridge collapse should set a fire under federal and state officials to get busy with fixing what was once, and likely still is, the best public infrastructure in the world. Our roads, bridges, tunnels, assorted pipelines, canals, levees and dams are getting older even as we ask more of them. It’s a tribute to their designers and builders that they are doing as well as they are.

Our roads are in a similar fix. The 51-year-old Interstate system comprises just 1 percent of all of our roads, but carries something like 41 percent of all large truck traffic, according to The Wall Street Journal. The interstate system was conceived at a time when trucks were smaller, less powerful and lighter. For that matter, whoever thought that 40-ton rigs pulling 53-foot trailers would need to make a right turn on a street in the middle of a small town?

The engineering society estimates “the United States needs to invest $1.6 trillion in federal, state and local funds over a five-year period to bring the nation’s infrastructure to a good condition – one that meets the needs of our current population.”

That is a lot of money. The day before the bridge collapsed, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost of the war in Iraq will eventually top $1 trillion, which includes benefits such as veterans’ health care, as well as the on-the-ground cost of waging war.

The “good” news, again quoting the ASCE, is that “much of the needed funding is already allocated in existing budgets – only about one-third of the total investment needed will be new funding. However, the $1.6 trillion does not account for future population growth.”

Ya gotta love the “only” in that quote. A third of $1.6 trillion is around $530 billion bucks. As anyone who has ever done a major repair or renovation job knows, costly surprises and changes lurk just below the surface. The figure could be much higher – and that’s just to accommodate today’s conditions and traffic.

Furthermore, it takes time to build or repair a road or a bridge. For the past 10 years, Music City has seen more orange barrels than rhinestones on the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry. The state has actually been dinging major contractors for delays and banning the slowpokes from bidding on new jobs, which seems to have gotten the contractors’ attention.

Still, it has to be done, Rufus said as we cleared the bridge.

“Thing is, this isn’t news to anybody. I don’t like high taxes and tolls. But I do like feeling that I’m getting my money’s worth. I reckon I’ve heard politicians say they’ll ‘cross that bridge when they come to it.’ Buddy, they’re at the bridge now – I just hope they have the guts to cross it.”

Until next time, be safe, make money and get home often.

Bill Hudgins may be reached at billhudgins@earthink.net.

Aug/Sept Digital Edition