With the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s career took a big hit. Pawlenty, currently chair of the National Governors Association, has built a career on a no-tax-increase pledge, and he’s risen in the ranks of national Republicans because of it. Among other feathers in his cap, he twice vetoed a gas-tax increase that would have provided money to the Department of Transportation, whose purview includes bridge inspection and repair.
Minnesota Republicans have insisted that–even though the bridge was deemed “structurally deficient” and severe corrosion and cracking had been noted almost ten years ago–there is no culpability here. Pawlenty so far has managed to keep the critics at bay. It fell to Carol Molnau, head of Minnesota’s Department of Transportation, to confront the outrage directly, with an impassioned defense of her agency during a press conference. “The dollars go into safety first,” she said. There was “no neglect and no malice.”
In fact, no one is alleging malice. But institutionalized neglect is what brought Molnau, Pawlenty and the entire post-Reagan Republican onslaught to power and kept it there for most of three decades. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
“Infrastructure” became a buzzword in the early 1980s. Infrastructure renewal was seen as essential for “reindustrialization,” which would be required in order to compete with a perceived trade threat from Japan. A 1981 study titled “America in Ruins,” commissioned by the Council of State Planning Agencies, caused a stir in the national media when it observed that 20 percent of US bridges needed major work or replacement. Imagine! (Today an even larger percentage is considered “obsolete” or “structurally deficient.”)
There was a lot of talk about metal fatigue and corroding pipes and worn-out dams, just as there is now. Then the Reagan tax cuts kicked in. The political climate changed, and soon another concept embraced by the ascendant right wing–“devolution,” a foisting of major public functions to the local level but usually without the money to carry them out–put the nail in the coffin of infrastructure renewal. The corrosive doctrine of self-interest became the dominant theme of politics, infecting government at every level. Even where liberals prevailed they had to pay it homage. Careers were made, think tanks were funded and individual politicians and decision-makers, like it or not, found themselves working in a milieu in which everything public was being allowed to rot. Not many years later an executive/financier class was pulling in more money in a few minutes than their employees made in a month, yet the party that represented them was continuing to win elections by arguing that taxes were too high. Infrastructure renewal had taken a back seat to the need for people to “keep their own money.”