Eerie silence at bridge disaster site

MINNEAPOLIS — Cars have been removed and the ninth victim’s body was recovered Aug. 13 from the I-35W bridge collapse here. Tall black cranes, one with the American flag on top of it, moved slowly on the horizon over the site. A wide area surrounding the bridge is closed to all but recovery workers.

From an apartment building parking lot you could see the southernmost bridge section cut in two, looking like a giant concrete slide with its twisted green undergirding lying on the ground next to the Mississippi River. The absence of the usual traffic noise gave an eerie silence to the view.

The bridge was built in the 1960s to hold 60,000 cars per day. But some 140,000 cars a day had been traversing the interstate span, which connects south Minneapolis to north Minneapolis. Trucks, which are bigger and heavier nowadays, also used I-35W as a major thoroughfare.

Perhaps worried about images of a collapsed bridge in the background during the 2008 Republican National Convention here, Republican officials have “fast-tracked” the rebuilding of the I-35W bridge. The goal is to have a new bridge within the year. Designs have been submitted and the Bush administration has promised to pay.

As one letter writer from Winona, Minn., said in the Pioneer Press, “If you believe President Bush’s promise of a quick rebuilding of the I-35W bridge, I have one word for you: Katrina! But wait. The big Republicans are coming to the Twin Cities in 2008. Maybe, just maybe ...!”

The political and legal struggles over the bridge collapse are far from over. The state is mulling a victims’ compensation fund, while the governor, other officials and companies may be in court for a long time to come as family members of the dead and others try to find out who the responsible parties are.

The Democratic/Farmer Labor Party-controlled state Legislature has sent Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty a gas tax increase to pay for road and bridge repairs. Pawlenty has vetoed such a measure twice before. Now he says he will sign the tax increase.

The bridge collapse, along with the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the recent crippling of the New York subway system by a heavy rain, have all brought new media attention to the poor state of the nation’s infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, at least $1 trillion would be needed over the next 10 years to bring the nation’s transportation, water systems, electrical grid and school buildings up to standards. They gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of “D.”

Many civil engineers and others say that maintenance budgets for projects are always a battle. A 2007 Urban Land Institute report on infrastructure needs said, “The state of deferred maintenance is so gargantuan nobody knows where to begin.”

The state of the infrastructure entered the presidential arena last week during the AFL-CIO’s presidential debate, where the seven Democratic candidates were grilled on their approach to it. “Putting our country back to work begins by cutting the funding for the war in Iraq,” said Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd. He said $1 billion in domestic infrastructure spending would create 40,000 jobs.

“I tell people the Iraq war killed the bridge victims,” said one resident, Bill Comiskey, a retired truck driver.

Meanwhile, debris removal here will begin after the recovery efforts are finished. There are four more people missing. About 100 were injured and eight remain hospitalized.

The ninth body recovered was of 20-year-old Richard Chit, who was riding with his mother, Vera Peck, when the bridge collapsed. His mother’s body is among those still missing. Chit had Down syndrome, and family members said Chit and his mother were always together.

talbano @pww.org