Steve Share, editor of the Minneapolis Labor Review, was in his office the evening of Aug. 1 when he heard the sirens wailing, a din that grew so loud he stepped out to see what was the matter.
In a steady stream, police cars, ambulances and fire engines were racing toward the I-35W bridge that spans the Mississippi.
He grabbed his camera and hurried to the disaster scene: the sudden collapse of the steel and concrete span, packed bumper to bumper with rush hour traffic. He shot photo after photo of the nightmare.
What struck him was the bravery of people who rushed to save lives. One young man risked his own life to drag children from a school bus.
So far, five people are confirmed dead, at least eight are missing and 100 injured.
“This could have been anybody on that highly traveled bridge,” Share told the World in a phone interview. “My letter carrier crossed the bridge just 15 minutes before it collapsed. Everybody here in the Twin Cities has been impacted by this tragedy.”
President Bush visited, offering bland condolences to the grieving families, Share noted, “but then he moved on to complain that the Democrats want to exceed his spending limits in the federal budget. He says it would mean a tax increase.”
“It is ironic that we are pouring all this treasure into Iraq and we have bridges falling down at home,” Share said.
Dick Anfang, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades, AFL-CIO, said an alarm was sounded on Minnesota’s roads and bridges at the MBCT convention in Mankato the week before the bridge collapsed. “We had elected officials who talked about their frustration that Gov. Tim Pawlenty [a Republican] vetoed bills to improve our roads and bridges,” Anfang told the World.
“We predicted something like this. My gut reaction is that this could have happened in any state in the nation at any time. The federal and local government have never given the infrastructure the priority it needs.”
Anfang compared the bridge collapse to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation three years ago. The hurricane “sped up the process” that breeched the levees, he said, but local officials had pleaded without success for decades that the Army Corps of Engineers needed to strengthen the levees to protect New Orleans.
Nearly three years later, the Bush administration is still refusing billions of dollars in promised funds to rebuild the city. The corps has rebuilt the levees but not strong enough, as promised, to withstand a force 5 hurricane.
Critics also cite the explosion of a high-pressure steam pipe in New York’s midtown Manhattan last month in which one person died and dozens were injured.
“This is certainly going to be an issue in the 2008 elections,” Anfang said. “The candidates who take a stand for protecting our public safety from disasters like this ultimately are going to be the winners.”
Share said one positive result of the bridge collapse “is that a vigorous public debate is beginning here on why this happened. This accident is a reminder that we have to invest in roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs, and it can’t be done on the cheap.”
A 2005 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation an overall grade of D on its crumbling physical infrastructure, which includes roads, bridges, dams, levees, water and sewer systems, the electric power grid and schools. That was down from D+ five years earlier. Across the country, 160,570 highway bridges are in danger of collapse, the report found.
Just a few days before the Minneapolis bridge collapse, ASCE President Bill Marcuson wrote on the ASCE blog, “The crumbling state of our infrastructure poses a real threat to public safety and the nation’s economy. Financing the urgently needed repairs must become a priority for our nation’s leaders.”
ASCE estimates the cost of repairing, replacing and upgrading the U.S. infrastructure will exceed $1.6 trillion, an enormous cost that rivals the $1 trillion estimated cost of occupying Iraq. Congress has been appropriating roughly $60 billion annually for roads and bridges while ASCE argues that at least $100 billion a year is needed.
Just hours before the bridge collapse, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced a bill “to revitalize, repair and replace America’s aging and crumbling roads, bridges, transit system and water treatment facilities.” In a joint statement, the senators warned of “a looming crisis that jeopardizes the prosperity and quality of life of all Americans.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has introduced a similar bill in the House.
Every Wednesday in recent years, Twin Cities antiwar protesters have vigiled on one of the bridges over the Mississippi River, demanding an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. The weekend after the bridge collapse, crowds joined vigils near the disaster site with the theme, “Build bridges, not bombs.”
Mary Beaudoin, executive director of Minneapolis-based Women Against Military Madness (WAMM), told the World, “Instead of deliberately destroying the infrastructure of Iraq, we want the infrastructure of the United States to be maintained. We want reparations paid for the damage done by our government both here and abroad. We need to alter our national priorities to preserve life and not destroy it.”