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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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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