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August 02, 2007

What Government Spends Money On

Powerline's John Hinderaker, whose blog routinely denounces government spending and infrastructure development, writes:

This is a relatively new highway; I think the bridge is around 30 years old. There is construction underway on Highway 35. One hopes that didn't contribute to the disaster. This is certainly not an earthquake zone.

This is the kind of disaster that just doesn't happen in the United States--a bridge spontaneously collapsing, apparently, into a river. It is hard to convey to those who don't live here the astonishment of this sort of catastrophe happening on our most traveled highway.

Ideas have consequences, John. And when you advocate for irresponsible tax cuts that rob the federal government -- and thus the state government -- of revenue, critical infrastructure needs aren't met.

And in case this is all too abstract for you, Rick Perlstein is connecting the dots...

This year two Democratic Minnesotan legislatures passed a $4.18 billion transportation package. Minnesota's Republican governor vetoed it because he had taken a no-new-taxes pledge, Grover Norquist-style. That's just what conservative politicians do.

The original bill would have put over $8 billion toward highways, city, and county roads, and transit over the next decade. The bill he let passed spent much less.

As is Kevin, at Lean Left, who has much more specific information on the warnings around this bridge.

August 2, 2007 | Permalink


I'm on your side, but can we wait a few days -- maybe even recover the bodies and figure out what happened? -- before we start following the "this disaster proves that my political position is correct" line? I mean, it's certainly better than jumping up and down screaming "Islamofascists!" when the news first breaks, but it still makes me queasy.

Posted by: KCinDC | Aug 2, 2007 3:48:54 PM

That kind of infrastructure failure never happens in the US. Steam pipes don't just explode in the middle of a major city. Levees don't just collapse. Ceilings of new tunnels just don't leak or fall on drivers and kill them. Water main breaks? Sinkholes? Crumbling bridges? What do you think this is, a third world country?

Posted by: SP | Aug 2, 2007 3:50:38 PM

No. I felt that way on the VA Tech shooting, where gun control policy didn't seem likely to actually prevent such tragedies. But when you don't spend on infrastructure, this is what happens. And you don't get to dodge that fact under the cover of mourning. This shouldn't be allowed to happen ever again.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 2, 2007 3:51:56 PM

I don't know this powerline blog so I've only read the links you provided but it sounds like he is more against government waste. I don't see anything about "it's not the government's job to pay for bridges that are going to collapse and kill people". So, give it a rest.

Posted by: Jason | Aug 2, 2007 3:52:46 PM

SP, forgot the FDA and well, the wars.

Republicans and conservatives are literally deadly, clear and present dangers to health and general welfare.
They kill people every day by the hundreds, thousands.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 2, 2007 4:00:34 PM

figure out what happened

The bridge collapsed. Bridges shouldn't collapse.

A metallurgist sez:

America’s physical, engineered infrastructure has been in desperate need for massive spending to repair and replace, but the multi-trillion-dollar cost has been rejected by local, state and federal politicians.

We have had bipartisan government neglect.

More broadly:

As the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card 2005 points out, we're $1.6 trillion behind in infrastructure investment. That, by the way, is the amount of tax cuts Mister Bush tried to get passed in 2001, before he had the Global War on Terrorism™ with which to shape his legacy. Congress "compromised" and gave him only $1.35 trillion, tax cuts that writer Robert Freeman once labeled a "national form of insanity."

America is paying attention to THIS bridge collapse NOW. This is perfect time to call attention to the spending environment that makes this inevitable. We don't have to know which rivets failed, or how the inspections were faulty to know that we have a problem of major proportions that needs very prompt attention.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 2, 2007 4:01:30 PM

Ezra, your attitude would be similar to me blaming you for the woman that was killed by falling concrete on the Big Dig because the government spent too much money on the project. "See, Ezra, that's what you get when the government overspends on something. A dead woman. Is that what you wanted?"

Posted by: Jason | Aug 2, 2007 4:02:01 PM

I was going to respond to Ezra's response, but Jim makes some good points, and I don't want to be associated with Jason's inanity, so I withdraw my objection.

Posted by: KCinDC | Aug 2, 2007 4:08:45 PM

I'm on your side, but can we wait a few days -- maybe even recover the bodies and figure out what happened?

No. The Republicans played this game after 9/11, except nobody ever got around to following up on these concerns ("Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US", etc.). This. Is. What. They. Do. Waiting a few days gives guys like Pawlenty the cover they need. In a few news cycles away, a pretty blonde dissapears and Pawlenty gets away scotch free.

"Ezra, your attitude would be similar to me blaming you for the woman that was killed by falling concrete on the Big Dig because the government spent too much money on the project. "See, Ezra, that's what you get when the government overspends on something. A dead woman. Is that what you wanted?"

There's a huge difference between "overspending" on a massive, mostly unneeded civic project and spending properly on basic maintenance and repairs. Thanks to tax cuts and "starve-the-beast" ideologies running government, there's not enough of the latter and this sort of shit happens because of it. It shouldn't be a surprise - don't spend enough to keep roads and bridges in shape, they will fail.

Also, if I remember right, private contractors using shoddy materials and doing crappy work was the source of much Big Dig related misery. But nevermind that!

Posted by: Joshua | Aug 2, 2007 4:11:46 PM

Let us not forget the Big Dig was a Mitt Romney big government project.

Posted by: tinfoil | Aug 2, 2007 4:12:54 PM

A local voice in Minneapolis with a clear understanding of the issue:

There aisn't any bigger metaphor for a society in trouble than a bridge falling, its concrete lanes pointing brokenly at the sky, its crumpled cars pointing down at the deep waters where people disappeared.

Only this isn't a metaphor.
In a word, it was avoidable.

That means it should never have happened. And that means that public anger will follow our sorrow as sure as night descended on the missing.

For half a dozen years, the motto of state government and particularly that of Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been No New Taxes. It's been popular with a lot of voters and it has mostly prevailed. So much so that Pawlenty vetoed a 5-cent gas tax increase - the first in 20 years - last spring and millions were lost that might have gone to road repair. And yes, it would have fallen even if the gas tax had gone through, because we are years behind a dangerous curve when it comes to the replacement of infrastructure that everyone but wingnuts in coonskin caps agree is one of the basic duties of government.

I'm not just pointing fingers at Pawlenty. The outrage here is not partisan. It is general.

Both political parties have tried to govern on the cheap, and both have dithered and dallied and spent public wealth on stadiums while scrimping on the basics.
At the federal level, the parsimony is worse, and so is the negligence. A trillion spent in Iraq, while schools crumble, there aren't enough cops on the street and bridges decay while our leaders cross their fingers and ignore the rising chances of disaster.

And now, one has fallen, to our great sorrow, and people died losing a gamble they didn't even know they had taken. They believed someone was guarding the bridge.

We need a new slogan and we needed it yesterday:

"No More Collapses."

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 2, 2007 4:16:20 PM

Oh, please, Ezra. It's not as though Minnesota hasn't increased its spending over the years. See http://www.budget.state.mn.us/budget/summary/hist_exp/070122_hist_exp.pdf.

Maybe you liberals should be blamed for the bridge collapse because you're draining financial resources that should be spent on infrastructure to spend money on your myriad of wasteful pet projects. You've got blood on your hands. You're immoral.

Do I sound ridiculous? So do you.

Posted by: ostap | Aug 2, 2007 4:17:10 PM

Just to note: Yesterday, Senators Hagel and Dodd proposed a massive piece of legislation (in terms of ideas and dollars) to fix our nation's infrastructure.

Short version: It would create a national bank to handle the some $1.6 trillion needed to get our infrastructure back up to speed.

I have no idea if this is a good idea or not (I haven't read the actual language of the proposal, and I'm certainly no economist), but with yesterday's tragedy, this may get a good, hard look.

Posted by: Mark D | Aug 2, 2007 4:20:32 PM

Across the board cuts are irresponsible, and if that's what Hinderaker supports, or other cuts to something like needed brigde projects and maintenance, then you might have a point against him. As Jason says, though, just being in favor of lower taxes or against waste is a different matter. And being in favor of higher taxes isn't necessarily any defense.

If the bridge is 40 years old, as reported, then I'd guess it was funded and mostly built in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and it was maintained over many administrations. Sounds bipartisan, as Jim says.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 2, 2007 4:26:52 PM

The engineers have to figure out if it was a design problem, a maintenance problem, or something else entirely.

Was the bridge design itself flawed? Was the bridge built too cheaply? Did the highway department remove rust and repair steel trusses on a regular basis? Was the steel used in the bridge up to spec? Did someone mess up during maintenance and damage the trusses underneath the roadway?

All these questions need to be answered before any decisions can be made over the real cause of the catastrophe.

If I had to guess right now, I'd say that the steel rollers that let the bridge sections expand and contract independently were poorly maintained (i.e. rusted over). Then, one section can't move, and the other sections pile up onto that immobile section. The forces and moments cause a collapse in that one section. Then, the next section falls because it lost that immobile one, and then the next and so on.

Posted by: stm177 | Aug 2, 2007 4:28:56 PM

I'm on your side, but can we wait a few days -- maybe even recover the bodies and figure out what happened? -- before we start following the "this disaster proves that my political position is correct" line?

I completely understand where you come from, but recall the tragedy of Katrina, where at first we were all lectured that it was unseemly to play "the blame game" while people were still in harm's way. And then once the dust cleared, we were told that it was unproductive to revisit old news and that we should be looking forward rather than backward. Somehow, the accountability moment came and went.

The important thing is to ask the right questions while attention is still focused. No one is served by hysterical claims that Bush was responsible for the highway collapsing. But it's necessary to ask what the effect of Pawlenty's tax policy was on the maintenance for this particular bridge, and whether there was a problem that would have been identified through a proper inspection had the funding been available. The lesson won't get learned any other way.

Posted by: Steve | Aug 2, 2007 5:00:38 PM

tinfoil wrote:

"Let us not forget the Big Dig was a Mitt Romney big government project."

Ah yes, the Big Dig. The big government project that was started in 1985, right after Mitt Romney's 2002 election to the Mass governorship. Or something. Jackass.

Posted by: sd | Aug 2, 2007 6:13:39 PM

A federal survey in 2005 found that bridges and roadways weren't being accurately posted for maximum weights (let alone enforcement).

I don't need a crystal ball to see what happened here. Trucks got bigger. Trucks got more powerful. Truck traffic increased. Drivers are no longer professional.

Where I live you can see what trucks do to a road. The county paves with asphalt and logging trucks, tandem dumps, and lowboys with dozers or backhoes run constantly. Within a year or two you can see the washboarding and feel it in the front end of your car.

Call me a wild shoot-from-the-hip type, but it seems pretty obvious that the bridge was just pounded by truck traffic it wasn't designed to handle. I'm guessing the analysis will show crystallization eventually resulting in failure, just like an overloaded piece of rail on a rail line.

If you want to get some idea of how a truck hammers the road, pump up a big 60-psi truck tire with a hand pump. The hardness of those tires is how trucks carry heavy loads, and why they ride rough, and you'll be able to really feel that hardness if you pump up one of those tires by hand.

In engineering there's no free lunch. The truck companies of America, though, have had one- courtesy of the taxpayer.

Posted by: serial catowner | Aug 2, 2007 6:30:03 PM

Ah yes, the Minnesota governor vetoed a 10 year spending bill a few months back that, had it passed, would have resulted in the I-35W bridge being all fixed up real good before anything bad happened.

Because you know, highway projects alwasy start up the day the funds are approved. And it only takes a few months to re-build a multi lane bridge over a running body of water. The fact that the bridge is the main cross town transportation corridor for a metro area of 2.5M people - why, that won;t slow it down at all.

Yesiree, Tim Pawlenty has just as much blood on his hands as if he had taken out a gun and shot several dozen people.

Keep connecting those dots!

Posted by: sd | Aug 2, 2007 6:31:18 PM

sd, it's reflective of a consistent pattern of republican misbehavior and gutter ideology that leads them to refuse to raise funds for infrastructure. That latest veto was just another symptom of the disease of which the collapse of the I-35W bridge was the latest consequence.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 2, 2007 6:59:22 PM


Interesting. The bridge was built in 1967. There was a Republican governor of MN from 1967-1971, an "Independent/Republican" from 1979-1983, another "Independent/Republican" from 1991-1999, and the current governor, a Republican who has served since 2003.

That's roughly 4+4+8+5= 21 years of Republican governors (assuming you count the 12 years of moderate "Independent/Republicans" as Republicans). Out of roughly 40. Yep - must be the Republicans brought down that thar bridge.

And "gutter ideology?" Would that be an accurate term for reflexively blaming a disaster that will almost certainly claim the lives of dozens of people on one's political opponents BEFORE THE CAUSES OF THE DISISATER IS KNOWN? I mean, in the midst of all this "Tim Pawlenty vetoed a bill and people died" wailing it seems to slip notice that the criminally under-maintained bridge collapsed WHILE MAINTENANCE WAS BEING DONE ON IT. Its not outside the realm of possibility that it collapsed due to the work being done, which forced undue traffic onto the lanes that were not being worked on at the time.

And of course, if we looked in the archives of liberal blogs from a couple months ago we wouldn't find any posts at all critical of the fact that we "subsidize" the internal combustion engine at the expense of mass transit by spending too much money on road construction and repair. Nope, not at all.

Posted by: sd | Aug 2, 2007 7:31:36 PM

Look, you can jump to any conclusion you like; doesn't change the fact that we don't know what specific issue caused this bridge to collapse, and until we know that, blaming "years of neglect" or "lack of infrastructure spending" sounds nice but may not be the whole story. Relating this to Katrina or 9/11 is only but so useful - the history of New Orleans and levees is long and complicated, the story of New York and its tallest building also complex and complicated that much more by the nature of the terrorist attack that happened that day. We have an enormous - and in many ways, wasteful - roads system in this country, and we've thrown billions and billions of dollars at construction and maintenance over the years; and we all know that there's still an enormous question of traffic burdens into and out of cities that can't be solved by more and more road construction, and that, in many areas, we have multiple maintenance issues on the roads and bridges and tunnels we already have. Something, then, has to give. We need to know what happened here, and we should, I think, favor a sensible process of investigation and evaluation that will allow for good, thoughtful plans on how to not have this happen again, and elsewhere. The difference between that and "the blame game" is that The Blame Game can be played by anyone with a pointing finger. I'm not planning to point just yet. For now, the sheer tragic nature of what happened is indictment enough.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 2, 2007 7:44:38 PM

I have to admit, much as I hate Mitt, the Big Dig was actually a Tip O'Neil/Ted Kennedy project. And actually a rather good idea, albeit not so well executed in parts. (Also enormously complex.)

I will wait for the facts on this tragedy to opine. But I do fear that constant attempts at government on the cheap and a reflexively hostility to taxes is resulting in severe infrastructural neglect -- possibly not in this specific instance, but in broad swaths of the country. And it is actually economically counterproductive in addition to being dangerous.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Aug 2, 2007 8:02:00 PM

I have to admit, much as I hate Mitt, the Big Dig was actually a Tip O'Neil/Ted Kennedy project. And actually a rather good idea, albeit not so well executed in parts.

Yeah, you can't blame Mitt for the entire debacle. The Weld and Cellucci administrations were the ones who oversaw the bulk of it. Then you had Republican-appointee jokers like James Kerasiotes and Andrew Natsios covering up the cost overruns. Then there were the corrupt contractors aided and abetted by the political establishment of MA. I'd love to lay the whole thing at Mitt's feet, but it's just not true.

It cost $14 billion. You know, looking back on it, compared to the Iraq war, this was a steal. 10 big digs would barely even cover the cost of a year in Iraq.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 2, 2007 8:22:02 PM

Look, sd, let's get something straight here--- the Republicaqn ideology is based on the premise that taxes should be cut at all times, under all circumstances, and that public works projects are wasteful. Collapsing bridges are the natural consequence of the Republican. Every candidate who ran for office on the Republican platform and every voter who couldn't shut his fat mouth about how "goverment is the problem" and that "government needs to be drowned in a bathtub" and how "big government never helped anyone" played a role in putting us here today. Look, this is the end result of an ideology that is hostile to raising money and building infrastructure-- people die.

Bush, as I remember, ran on a platform of "tax cuts for everyone" and "spend more money in Iraq!" Why are you even bothering to argue? Why don't you just say, "look, a few broken bridges and dead bodies are an acceptable price to pay in exchange for tax cuts, a government that doesn't work, and an endless war in Iraq?" La di da. You got everything you wanted. What the hell do you care about crumbling infrastructure, now? You never gave a shit before.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 2, 2007 8:35:30 PM

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