The Truth, Mainly - 08/13/2007

Is It War or Infrastructure?
by Leon Satterfield

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 structurally deficient."

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 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 our country.

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 dollars—hang on to your hat—looks like this: $1,000,000,000,000.

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 address is:

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