OK, I admit it. The next time I drive far enough east of
Lincoln that I have to cross a bridge over the Missouri River I'll be
having a severe case of the fantods.
I suspect that, as of the August 1 collapse of the I-35
bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis, a whole lot of Americans
share my bridge phobia.
Despite President Bush's efforts to assure Minneapolis
citizens that everything's going to be all right, that "we want to
get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible," a lot of cynics are
rolling their eyes and saying "Yeah, right."
Especially if they live in New Orleans. You remember New
Orleans, the city that was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
According to an Associated Press story by Becky Bohrer last week,
President Bush, speaking in the New Orleans French Quarter shortly
after the hurricane, promised that his federal government disaster
relief folks would stay around "as long as it takes to help citizens
rebuild their communities and their lives."
You've probably seen on television the devastation that
still remains in New Orleans nearly two years later. Bohrer
interviewed Melanie Thompson who has been living with her family of
five in "a cramped trailer and awaiting aid to rebuild" her house
that had been flooded out.
Bohrer wrote that Melanie's "hope and faith in the
government" have faded. She sympathizes with Minneapolis folks and
says "I just hope to God" that the government agencies will "come to
their rescue a lot quicker than they did to ours."
The story ends on this dour note: "Major reconstruction
work has yet to begin in New Orleans, and city officials are still
drafting a $1.1 billion recovery plan."
And guess what: Minneapolis officials weren't much
encouraged when U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, on the day
after their bridge collapsed, said that "Bridges in America should
not fall down."
Nobody challenged her on that.
If you're thinking that Nebraska is immune to all that
Minnesota and Louisiana stuff, hear this: An August 3 A.P. story
informed us that "Of 15,452 bridges in Nebraska, 2413 are considered
In Nemaha County, it went on, "about 58 percent of the 194
spans are rated structurally deficient" making it "among the worst-off
counties in the nation for bridges." (Sam Fallaha, bridge engineer
for the Nebraska Department of Roads, told The Associated Press that
those ratings can be misleading because they are not based on how the
bridge is intended to be used.)
But those numbers don't mean that the whole of Nebraska is
worse off than most other states. The American Society of Civil
Engineers, according to an Aug. 3 piece by Eugene Robinson in the
Washington Post, reported that 27.1 percent of the whole country's
590,750 bridges have "structural deficiencies that at some point
should be addressed."
The Truth, Mainly
The engineers "estimated that it would cost $9.4 billion a
year for 20 years 'to eliminate all bridge deficiencies.'"
And get this: Robinson wrote that "bridges were actually
deemed to be in better shape than dams, roads or the power grid" in
All of that, I just found out, is what people in the know
call the "infrastructure" and it involves more money than an English
major like me can get his head around.
But even an English major knows that $9.4 billion is a
drop in the bucket compared to the $610 billion Congress on May 25
approved to pay for the President's current war.
And the $610 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to
our federal debt which has gone from $5.8 trillion at the end of his
first year as President to $8.955 trillion now.
You know what a trillion is? I had to go to the
dictionary where I found out that it's a million million. A million
million dollarshang on to your hatlooks like this:
Yes, there are twelve zeros.
Here, according to U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman
Kent Conrad, D-N.D., are some of our creditors: "Japan we owe over
$600 billion. China we owe over $400 billion. The United Kingdom,
over $160 billion
.The oil exporters, over $120 billion."
(Does that last creditor category explain this
administration's obsession with oil?)
Is it time to stop borrowing and spending on a war most of
us have lost the stomach for, a war we seem to be getting further and
further from winning?
Think of what spending just a small fraction of those
numbers on our infrastructure might do for our collective well-being
as we cross the bridges that lie ahead.
Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity
from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail