04 August 2007

A few thoughts on the bridge disaster in Minneapolis

As I described in the last post you can see that I take this accident very seriously. It is unlikely given the size of the place that I knew anyone dead or injured, but I may make a few phone calls this weekend, just in case.

The 35W bridge was built in '57, I think. It was at the time the best engineering that we could give it. It has been regularly inspected and while the last few inspections found deficiencies, this does not mean that it was in any danger of collapse.

Now Minnesota has, rightly, a reputation for clean government and a lack of corruption. That doesn't mean that something wasn't fudged, just that it might be less likely than elsewhere. Minnesota, on the whole, has always been more willing than most states to put money into its infrastructure.

In other words, if this could happen to an 50 year old bridge in Minneapolis, it can damn sure happen anywhere else in our aging and rusting transportation system. The problem has been noted for over two decades at least. No level of government wants to spend the money needed to keep these things in good shape. And they certainly are not willing to raise taxes for something that the public could not "see." So the bridges continue to deteriorate.

For all of you out there who think that government is the problem and should be starved of taxes so it can be spent on something better (bigger houses? more toys? bigger cars?), just keep telling yourself that the next time you cross a bridge with your loved ones on the back seat.

I'll be praying for you.

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At 05 August, 2007 11:53, Blogger jack perry said...

I'm someone who believes that government very often is the problem, but I certainly don't believe it should be starved of taxes, and I don't think that people like me are the reason things like this are happening. Disasters like this happen for many, many reasons. Some of them, quite frankly, because disasters will just plain happen from time to time, even without humans around to cause more of them.

Government has been taking on more and more responsibilities that do not properly belong to it, and this lack of focus is leading it to lose focus on responsibilities that do belong to it. There are problems that government cannot solve, but will only make worse while the media, convinced that a new program and new billions have "solved" the problem, turn a blind eye while decades pass and the situation worsens.

I could talk here, for example, about how in order to solve problems of poverty, we started a fine program of college loans. The result is that now many, many universities are dependent on the federal dole of Stafford Loans & the like, so that they accept an increasing number of students who have no business being in high school, let alone college, keep them around for a couple of years of 1.0 GPAs, then expel them with a healthy load of debt they will never repay. At my last institution, the administration told us that they could not raise the minimum standards for entrance, because they would become financially insolvent. And let's not talk about the entire state of Mississippi, which lives off the federal dole, begging constantly for more, while simultaneously resisting every attempt to pay anything more than a token amount of taxes. Shouldn't Minnesotans (who, if I recall correctly, pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal spending) be entitled not to let Mississippians, Louisianas, and others (which states are generally the reverse) live off their honest, hard work?

We need a healthy debate in this country on the priorites of a government's responsiblities, but we aren't getting one. Instead, every problem that occurs is assumed to need a solution at the federal level, even when previous federal solutions are, arguably, worsening the matter. An article in today's Washington Post on the levees in New Orleans comes to mind.

All governments are a battlefield of noisy interests, but the more we centralize power in the federal government, the more the interests and the more the noise, distracting it from its duties, which (constitutionally at least) include interstate commerce. Sometimes, more government is the problem, not the solution.

At 05 August, 2007 13:04, Blogger Joey said...

Transportation (infrastructure and mass transit) is precisely what our tax dollars should be supporting.

Funding art programs and the like through earmarks makes little sense and is a waste of tax dollars.


At 05 August, 2007 17:29, Blogger jack perry said...

For what it's worth, I read in today's paper that the problem with the bridge was due to several misunderstandings common in engineering during the 1950s and 60s.

Should the federal government be funding programs for mass transit at the local level? I'm all for its funding mass transit at the interstate level, which is its area of competence, but if the federal government has money to throw around on local mass transit, then in my opinion the federal government has too much money.

At 06 August, 2007 19:08, Blogger Joey said...

Yup mass transit should be funded at the state/local level.

Of course, if I-4 being an INTRAstate is receiving funding from the feds I am not so sure the reasoning would be consistent.


At 07 August, 2007 00:11, Blogger Clemens said...

I'll get around one of these days to a longer reply to Jack's thoughtful comment. In general my perspective is that all government is special interests: local government favors the local political elites who have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much as they are. It took fairly strong arm action from the Federal government to 1)keep some states part of the Union and 2) do away with Jim Crow laws. In my personal experience Federal govt is both more efficient and less corrupt than local government (though I admit I was impressed with the Minnesotans).

College loans have certainly been abused but I personally know many students, myself among them, who have taken advantage of them and done well.

As for mass transit, much of it would be interstate transit and the Federal gov't should have a role in that. Particularly on major corridors like the one from New York to Washington. But then I have lots of ideas on transportation policy, none of which would be politically viable.

Government, by itself, is not the problem. Bad government, corrupt government, or simply self-serving government sure could be.

But I need more time to think on this.

Welcome back Jack!


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