By Al Lewis
Once upon a time, a bridge fell into the Mississippi River.
Thirteen people died, 145 people were injured and something that might have cost $15 million to repair cost more than $235 million to replace. It happened five years ago, on Aug. 1, 2007, at 6:05 p.m., sending rush-hour traffic into the river.
It was the sort of spectacle we've been conditioned to expect from a collapsing regime, like the former Soviet Union in the Cold War. But this was Minneapolis, and America was still enjoying the fruits of its subprime mortgage schemes.
When it happened, I thought there might be a message buried beneath all the death and destruction, but apparently there wasn't. Bridge expert Barry LePatner has just launched a Google map marking 7,980 bridges that could fall like the I-35W Mississippi Bridge at any moment.
"Every bridge engineer I talk to around the country acknowledges that this will happen on every one of these bridges that's not being remediated," says Mr. LePatner.
Mr. LePatner is a New York construction industry lawyer and author of "Too Big To Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and The Way Forward." (Go to his site, SaveOurBridges.com, and see if there's a collapsing bridge near you. Maybe you pass beneath one on your drive to work or send your children across it in a yellow bus. Send me an email. I would love to hear what you find.)
Mr. LePatner's map is based on bridges the Federal Highway Administration has deemed both "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical." The first category means one or more defects. The second means no redundant system to keep a bridge in place if one of its parts fails.
These perilous bridges haven't been repaired for the same reason that many other things aren't getting fixed, from the economy on down: Politicians are slaves to corporate masters. They get re-elected for funding new off-ramps at new malls in the new parts of towns.
"There is no incentive for congressmen to put money on the underside of a bridge," Mr. LePatner says.
It's like a choice once faced in New Orleans: Pay millions now to maintain the levee system or billions later to replace it when it finally fails. Mr. LePatner says more than 600 bridges have failed in the U.S. since 1989. But most were closed and rebuilt without collapsing and making headlines.
Mr. LePatner estimates the nation's most dangerous bridges could be repaired for somewhere between $30 billion and $60 billion -- about the cost of bailing out a couple big banks.
The job would take construction workers off the unemployment dole and turn them into taxpayers. Their incomes would ripple through the economy like rain in a desert.
The nation would have safe bridges and better economic times to show for its tax dollars. Instead, we're getting 8.3% unemployment and bailed-out banks that will probably fail again someday.
Roads and bridges used to be considered a matter of national security. President Dwight D. Eisenhower came home from Germany impressed with the way Adolf Hitler moved war assets on the Autobahn. He built the highway system for commerce, but also so Americans could evacuate cities in an attack.
Mr. LePatner's hope is that people use his map and become concerned enough about their failing bridges to call their representatives.
"We can't keep letting politicians off the hook," Mr. LePatner says. "We are in a downward spiral that can only lead to tragedy after tragedy. . . . Gravity wins."
Al Lewis is a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires in Denver. He blogs at tellittoal.com; his email address is email@example.com