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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

May 28, 2013 at 10:38 AM

The Skagit River bridge shows our future collapsing, too

Investigators at the scene of last week's I-5 bridge collapse near Mount Vernon. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

Investigators at the scene of last week’s I-5 bridge collapse near Mount Vernon. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

The Interstate 5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River was 58 years old. It was built when the U.S. population was about 166 million and the Northwest was a far-away place for most Americans and much less built up. Hundreds more bridges in Washington are vulnerable.  The average age of the nation’s 607,380 bridges is 42 years. the seasonal mudslides along the rail line north of Seattle, first built in the late 19th century, are a scandal of sloth and aimlessness. Sometimes I think we are living off the investments of previous generations with the obliviousness of the characters in the movie Idiocracy . This would be an excellent time to be repairing existing roads and bridges, as well as spending on a more diverse multi-modal system, including expanding and rebuilding our passenger train system and adding capacity to major freight corridors. It would put people to work at a time of high unemployment, more than pay for itself in long-term productivity improvements and interest rates are incredibly low. Even better if we make our bridges here, instead of buying them from China.

Yet I’m not optimistic that this most recent evidence of our failing infrastructure will be a wake-up call any more than the lethal Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007. An $8.5 billion transportation bill is bottled up in Olympia. The critical Columbia River Crossing is stymied because some in Vancouver, Wash., are afraid of light rail. In the other Washington, the misbegotten culture of austerity and sequester is making it impossible to do much more than tread water, if that.

To be sure, the infrastructure debate is complex. The United States ranks 7th on the latest Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Council. That doesn’t seem to show a nation in crisis, although we did fall two notches from 2011-2012. Boondoggles do happen, although more often on roads and freeways we don’t need than with light rail and transit. Funding streams are distorted and as often steered by powerful members of Congress as by actual need (wait for the federal money to be spent dredging eastern harbors to the detriment of Seattle and Tacoma).

And there’s no comfortable ideological niche for the conversation. True, the trillions spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been better employed on rebuilding America and creating a 21st century transportation system. But the “liberal” view must also contend with environmental reviews and much greater veto power for neighborhoods and localities than existed when Dwight Eisenhower launched the Interstate Highway System or when FDR (and Herbert Hoover) championed public works. The overall federal government and its obligations were smaller, too.

The best we may hope for is small steps, such as a gradual fix for the mudslides on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line between Seattle and Everett. The bridge over the Skagit will be replaced. And wait for the next structural failure. The biggest one is in our inability to rebuild America.

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