Saturday, May 25, 2013

66,749 structurally deficient bridges

(WPA workers building a bridge in Harford County, Maryland, in June of 1936. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.) 

The recent collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State has brought increased (though probably short-lived) attention to America's aging infrastructure.

Though the bridge collapse seems to have been caused primarily by an impact, the American Society of Civil Engineers highlights that there are 66,749 structurally deficient bridges in America. And bridges are not supposed to collapse through vehicle impact, so the Skagit River Bridge's age (58 years) may have played a role in its demise.  

Meanwhile, there are 26 million Americans who would like a full-time job but can't find one, there are 4.4 million long-term unemployed Americans (as of April 2013), and "Nearly 6.5 million U.S. teens and young adults are neither in school nor in the workforce..." And, of course, there are many Americans who are simply not on the radar, living "off the grid" and completely forgotten by their fellow citizens. All this brings the American labor force participation rate to its lowest level since 1979

As to be expected, our political "leaders" won't connect the dots. Instead, many of our "leaders" are more concerned with cutting programs that help the poor than improving our aging infrastructure or addressing unemployment.      

It doesn't have to be this way of course; during the Great Depression, New Deal work & construction programs modernized American infrastructure like never before. For example, the WPA employed jobless Americans to build, repair, or improve 124,011 bridges and viaducts (from the Final Report on the WPA Program, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946). So successful was the WPA that even anti-big government icon Ronald Reagan wrote, "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects" (from his autobiography Ronald Reagan: An American Life, emphasis added). In fact, Reagan was so impressed by the WPA that, while governor of California, he instituted a similar program (i.e., government-provided jobs for those receiving financial assistance).

Today, many of our political "leaders" invoke Reagan's name (and what they think or pretend his message was) in blocking government action on infrastructure and unemployment. I'm not a big fan of Reagan, nor am I a big detractor, but I do believe he's probably rolling over in his grave about the ambivalence shown by our current political "leaders" towards deteriorating infrastructure and high unemployment. (As just one example, in September of 2012 Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would have created a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans--despite the fact that veterans have faced heightened suicide and unemployment problems over the last several years).

We need new bridges, we need a new WPA, and we need a new New Deal. But our political "leaders" just  keep raking in the corporate cash and ignoring our pleas. How pathetic is that?

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