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Nick Avgerinos
Nick Avgerinos
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Mind the Gap: Bridge Safety Still Falling Short

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“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” With all the hidden traps that technology sets, it’s easy to worry that the world will soon be crumbling all around us. And, as we have seen with numerous examples—perhaps most notably, global warming—our aging earth and our aging country require that we make some major changes to keep them habitable. It’s unfortunate that it often takes drastic events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to really call our attention to such problems. What’s even more unfortunate, however, is when we fail to respond.

That appears to be the case regarding the Minneapolis bridge collapse that happened a year ago. The country’s citizens were stunned by the site of the crumpled bridge, worried about our fellow commuters, and frustrated, wondering, “How could this happen?” And then, naturally, “Could that happen here?”

The answer is yes. Bridges, like most things, are only built to last so long. And it seems we’ve reached the breaking point; it’s time to give them a facelift. The problem is that so many of them need that facelift simultaneously. In 2006, the Federal Highway Administration reported that 1 in 4 of the nation’s bridges were at risk. As calculated by the American Society for Civil Engineers, it would cost nearly $10 billion every year for the next two decades to fix them.

According to a new study, conducted for the Reason Foundation, Illinois ranks 10th best in the nation in its upkeep of bridges. While that may sound promising, it merely serves to point out the sad state of transportation affairs; more than 4,300 of the approximately 26,000 bridges in the state are considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution, either. High gas prices have sparked more car pooling and fewer road trips; that’s good news for the environment, but bad news for the Highway Trust Fund, which relies on gas tax money. That Fund, which had an $8 billion dollar balance at the beginning of the current fiscal year, expects to have a $3.1 billion deficit in the next fiscal year.

Minnesota has been taking extra measures to ensure bridge safety since last year’s disaster, but it, too, lacks the funds for the complete overhaul needed. Mercedes Gordon, a survivor of that collapse wonders why sales taxes were used to subsidize a new baseball stadium, but funds cannot be found to repair bridges. She questioned: “What’s more important: baseball or safe traveling? Should we all be afraid every time we cross a bridge now?”

And while I’m reluctant to pose the former question in a city where the crosstown rivalry leads many to treat baseball like a religion, I think the latter question is important; we probably should be nervous about the situation. Maybe this latest study will emphasize the salience of the problem, inspiring legislators to find solutions, rather than dismiss concerns as a Chicken Little-type rant.