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Bridge collapse exposes capitalist priorities

Published Aug 8, 2007 10:35 PM

In the aftermath of the abrupt collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, taking with it cars, buses, trucks and people during the busy after-work drive home, every form of media asked: How could this happen in the U.S.? But the one question not widely asked is: Why does Congress continue to authorize hundreds of billions to fund “endless war” while the basic infrastructure across the country is crumbling?

Minneapolis anti-war forces protest during
Bush’s Aug. 4 visit.

Improved bridge design requirements were adopted in 1967, the year I-35W construction was completed and the Silver Bridge collapsed into the Ohio River. The Minneapolis span across the Mississippi River was obsolete before the first vehicle drove across it.

The new design standards mandated “redundancy,” meaning that if one structural part failed, the others had enough strength to prevent the entire bridge from collapsing.

Because the design-funding-bid-construction process often takes years, I-35W was designed using older standards. At that time steel fatigue in bridges was reportedly unknown to designers who also could not predict the increased truck weights and traffic volume 40 years in the future. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, vehicle travel on Minnesota’s highways increased 42 percent from 1990 to 2003.

Thousands of steel-truss bridges were built in the 1950s and 1960s during the federal push to create the interstate highway system initiated by the Eisenhower administration. Steel-truss bridges can support large traffic loads using minimal amounts of steel. (LA Times) According to the Federal Highway Administration 756 of them are the relatively unique steel-deck truss bridges like the one that collapsed on Aug. 1.

A post-World War II steel shortage and the increase in available labor from returning soldiers made this labor intensive construction design economically desirable.

Crumbling infrastructure ignored

The detailed investigation currently underway that is piecing together and computer modeling the failed I-35W bridge will eventually find the specific cause of the collapse. However, no such infrastructure failure can be a surprise, except to motorists driving over it.

For example, nothing was done to upgrade the New Orleans levees, or to provide real evacuation plans or immediately rescue those stranded on rooftops and in hospitals despite repeated studies and predictions in previous years. And six months before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, on March 9, 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) had released its Infrastructure Report Card, which addressed the potential crisis. (www.asce.org)

The breaches in the levees and lack of emergency services exposed the racist criminal neglect of the poor and working-class neighborhoods, and disproportionate African-American population, along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

The 2005 Report Card gave overall public infrastructure in the U.S. a poor rating. Infrastructure includes aviation, schools, dams, water supply, sewers, the power grid and hazardous waste, as well as roads and bridges.

According to ASCE estimates, $1.6 trillion dollars are needed over five years—$320 billion per year—to bring infrastructure from a D rating to a B rating.

ASCE gave bridges an overall C score, mediocre. Clearly, despite regular inspection, I-35W was worse than mediocre—it failed completely. Assessing responsibility in this one incident will not address the overall problem.

Sewer sinkholes, leaks in water mains that drive up water-use bills, power outages, floods, steam tunnel explosions, lack of affordable mass transit and urban sprawl as well as crumbling roads and bridges are all critical infrastructure issues that affect the lives of working people, sometimes in sudden tragedy, like in Minneapolis.

In Michigan, concrete chunks fall from the underside of bridges onto motorists driving by. In New York City steam pipes explode, metal manhole covers electrocute pedestrians and neighborhoods lose electrical power. For Katrina/Rita survivors it is a long-term struggle to return home to the Gulf Coast.

Move to privatize bridges, roadways

Congress responded to the I-35W collapse by authorizing $250 million for reconstruction and temporary traffic detours and renewing calls to increase the gasoline taxes used for road construction. Because the U.S. economy is profit-driven, not planned for human needs, such road funding decisions are often prioritized for business development and suburban expansion, and are not prioritized for mass transit.

The creation of the U.S. Interstate Highway System ushered in tremendous changes. The original purpose was for domestic military transportation as part of the anti-Soviet war buildup. Factories were moved away from urban centers like Detroit where militant African-American workers were concentrated. Inner cities and towns that were bypassed by freeways withered.

Although the system was a federal initiative, the interstate highways are maintained by the states. Federal Highway Administration funds—like federal funds for health care and other programs—are channeled through state transportation departments. Federal, state and local governments jointly fund the maintenance and reconstruction of roads and bridges under their jurisdiction.

Federal funding cuts for state social programs, job loss, wage cuts and tax breaks for developers and businesses create local budget shortfalls and competition between programs for matching funds.

Under this pressure created by competition for funds between infrastructure and social needs and pressure from corporate interests, state and local governments are turning to privatization of infrastructure—including roads and bridges.

Currently another discussion is also taking place in professional and business circles, one which is evaluating the effects of globalization, just-in-time production, NAFTA and international economic competition.

According to the American Association of State, Highway and Transportation Officials, “The global network moves people, goods and information continuously around the world. It is characterized by new trade patterns, new flow patterns and hubs playing new roles. The U.S. transportation system is a subsystem within the global network.” (www.transportation1.org/tif5report/)

Without intervention by the working class and oppressed nationalities, this discussion will also determine the allocation of infrastructure funding.

Elected officials are channeling funds to meet the costs of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, which enriches Halliburton, Blackwater and other military contractors and maintains U.S. imperialist hegemony in the oil-rich crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The State of Minnesota is funding this war to the tune of $11 billion over the past five years—enough for 44 I-35W bridges.

‘Bridges not bombs!’

What issue was so important that it kept U.S. representatives up past midnight to vote on before leaving Washington, D.C. for vacation on Aug. 5?

It wasn’t roads, bridges or levees.

Early Sunday morning, the House of Representatives approved $460 billion in military spending for fiscal year 2008 by a 395 to 13 vote—a $40 billion increase from the previous year. Supplementary funding for the imperialist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan will be voted on in the fall.

The Aug. 5 appropriation will fund major weapons systems such as the next generation Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. Lockheed Martin—the largest military contractor with a track record of cost overruns—builds both. According to defensenews.com, 91 percent of Lockheed Martin’s revenue last year was from military contracts. The July 30 Washington Post reported that Lockheed Martin’s profit rose by 34 percent in 2006, to $778 million, far exceeding most forecasts.

In the 2008 budget, $1.2 trillion—51 percent of federal income tax dollars—is earmarked for the Pentagon and legacy costs from previous wars. (www.warresisters.org)

The official federal figure is 21 percent, but that is distorted by including Social Security—which is a separately funded program.

Although the politicians ignore this elephant in the budget, many in Minneapolis made sure it wasn’t forgotten. When President George W. Bush hovered in a helicopter over the site of the collapsed bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 4, anti-war activists spread out a large banner, readable from the air, which demanded, “Support bridges not war!”

LaBash has worked as a construction inspector in Michigan for 17 years.