Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Gives Antonio Villaraigosa Another Chance

I haven’t yet heard or seen Mayor Villaraigosa go on TV to talk about all the things he is going to do to check the status of all the bridges and other elevated structures on which Los Angeles drivers depend, many of which are older than the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis yesterday.

That’s okay.  They are still pulling people out of the Mississippi River.  It might be unseemly to move too quickly. But this tragic disaster presents the mayor with an unearned but vital opportunity to make the last two years of his term meaningful, and possibly recoup his political momentum.

As Stephen Flynn‘s column in Popular Mechanics points out, every city and state leader in America should look up on the dead and injured in the Mississippi River and realize it could have just as easily been our neighbors, and it might be us next time.

According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation’s 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars. American commuters now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost to the economy of $63.2 billion a year.

It is not just roads and bridges that are being stressed to the breaking point. Two weeks ago New Yorkers were scrambling for cover after a giant plume of 200-plus-degree steam and debris shot out of the street and into the air. The mayhem was caused by the explosion of a steam pipe, installed underground in 1924 to heat office buildings near Grand Central station. In January 2007, Kentuckians and Tennesseans woke up to the news that the water level of the largest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi would have to be dropped by 10 ft. as an emergency measure. The Army Corps of Engineers feared that if it didn’t immediately reduce the pressure on the 57-year-old Wolf Creek Dam, it might fail, sending a wall of water downstream that would inundate communities all along the Cumberland River, including downtown Nashville.

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span. 

Politicians like Villaraigosa get advice from seasoned campaign operatives that talking about “infrastructure” is a losing political strategy.   Elections are won on emotion — elevating the candidate to mythic stature, and denigrating opponents as corrupt scum — not on the candidates’ plans to address the prosaic priorities of the government he or she wants to lead.  This dynamic has led to a critical underinvestment in the physical structure of our cities and states, especially in California.

It’s easier to tell people they need tax cuts, or to shovel more money to public employees.  Bridges, power plants and ports are not only unsexy, they become oddly controversial.  For an example, take LAX.  If you’re running for mayor or council, the quickest way to win applause in Westchester, El Segundo or Inglewood is to take the most irresponsible position possible with regard to upgrading that critical facility.  Safety? Security? Trade? Tourism?  Who cares!? The people around LAX don’t like it, and apparently figure that if nothing is done to fix it, it might go away.

The tragedy in Minnesota potentially could change the politics of infrastructure.   The desperate search for 20 or 30 missing people is anything but boring or unemotional.  The crumbling bridge puts the most important issue facing most cities and states at the top of the news — with a warning that it could happen here.  Villaraigosa, fighting to look like a serious leader again, could do himself and Los Angeles a lot of good by seizing this urgent moment to get the needed repairs on track.

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