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Bridges Shouldn't Fall

November 05, 2007 By Eliot Seide, Director AFSCME Council 5
In America, bridges shouldn't fall.  That's why people were stunned by the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi.  We were horrified by cars sinking into the river and crying victims trapped under tons of concrete and steel.  Now we mourn with the families of the dead and injured, and we look for answers.

Before this tragedy, we trusted that the Pawlenty-Molnau Administration was under our bridges making them safe.  Today we cross our fingers and pray that we'll get across dangerous bridges.  Although many motorists call the Lafayette Bridge a "death trap," we still drive on it because we can't swim across the river.

We expected the Pawlenty-Molnau Administration to take bold action after the bridge collapsed.  We expected our leaders to stop starving transportation and invest in safe bridges and roads.  Instead, we got lip service to make us stop worrying.  State bridge officials warned against scaring people with spooky titles, like "structurally deficient" and "fractured critical."

The problem isn't terminology; it's chronic disinvestment.  Just ask Bart Andersen, a state bridge inspector.  Bart will tell you that he can't keep motorists safe anymore because he can't fix what he inspects.  Each year when he inspects a structurally deficient bridge, he watches the cracks get deeper and the steel get weaker.  It's hard for him to go home at night knowing that there's 
no funding to fix the problems.   

Many of our bridges have reached their 50-year replacement age.  To compound that need for investment, our bridges built since 1950 are on average four times the size of their predecessors.  And the weight they hold is much greater because trucks are now carrying freight that trains used to transport.  That means our bridges are under more stress and cost more to replace and preserve.

Bart is the eyes under bridges for Governor Pawlenty and his Lt. Governor and Transportation Boss Molnau.  Their Department of Transportation should be listening to Bart instead of threatening him for speaking truth to power.

Bart knows what the public needs to know and what Governor Pawlenty and Commissioner Molnau want to hide from us.  He knows that Minnesota's Department of Transportation is broke and our transportation system is broken.  He knows that the Pawlenty-Molnau Administration is starving maintenance.  It's postponing construction.  And it's shifting state transportation costs onto counties that can't afford it.  Meanwhile, driving in Minnesota has become dangerous. 

Bart courageously spoke truth to Congress last month.  He identified our two biggest problems: lack of staff and lack of funds to do bridge work.  Our Department of Transportation has only 77 inspectors who are responsible for 14,000 state, county and city bridges.  The policy is to check every bridge at least once every two years.  About 30 percent of our bridges are "fractured critical."  Those fractured bridges require inspection once a year.  There simply aren't enough hours in the workday for 77 inspectors to check 14,000 bridges the way they should be checked for safety.

Most importantly, we should have the funds to fix the problems that bridge inspectors report.

We need our confidence restored; we need to know that government works.  It's time to pass a transportation funding bill that will

revive our under-built and under-maintained transportation system.  It's time to hire more bridge workers and highway maintenance workers to get Minnesota moving safely.

Our challenge is to build the political will to invest in safe roads and bridges.  Last session, the Minnesota Legislature failed to override Governor Pawlenty's veto of the transportation funding bill.  Shockingly, the week after our bridge collapsed, only 38 percent of Minnesotans said they favored a gas tax increase for safe roads and bridges.  That's because the public mistakenly thinks that the Department of Transportation can take care of business by doing a better job of prioritizing projects. 

The public should heed a heroic bridge inspector's warning: our Department of Transportation is broke and our transportation system is broken.  It's time to invest in safe roads and bridges before more of us get hurt.

In America, bridges shouldn't fall.  Let's mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living.

Eliot Seide is director of AFSCME Council 5, the union representing 2700 workers employed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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