Bridges aren't supposed to fall down

People die in earthquakes, or storms, not driving home on a summer evening when a bridge suddenly collapses in Minnesota.

Published August 8, 2007 10:52AM (EDT)

When the bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, several people called me to see if I was OK, and I was in New York, standing in line at H&H Bagels at 80th and Broadway, which came as a disappointment to my friends, calling to commiserate about a tragedy, hoping for a good story ("I crossed that bridge 45 seconds before it went down, I felt it wobble"), but H&H is where I was, me and my St. Paul cellphone, waiting for cream cheese with scallions and three poppy-seed bagels. "I thought you were here," they said. "No, I'm in New York," I replied.

The bridge collapse was front-page news in New York, though, and for three days running. Bridges are not supposed to fall down unless there is an earthquake. People die in violent storms, plane crashes, epidemics, but a person is supposed to be able to drive home on a summer evening and cross a river on a steel truss bridge and not find himself plunging headlong into the abyss.

Especially not in Minnesota. We are a state of Germans and Scandinavians, people who make up in common sense for what we lack in sheer charisma, and a crappy piece of engineering is an embarrassment to us. There is a university here that teaches engineering and a whole state office building populated by men in white shirts with plastic pocket protectors. It isn't Uzbekistan.

The way to get money to fix a bridge is for it to collapse and kill people, and so Congress promptly awarded Minnesota $250 million for the fallen I-35W. The usual suspects held press conferences to express shock and concern, pledge support, etc. The governor called for a time of healing and he proclaimed confidence in his commissioner of transportation, a large ebullient woman in a bright red blouse. There were prayer services. The Current Occupant came to view the wreckage and to express, in that intense and aimless way of his, his hopes for a better life for us. And then, having raised our hopes, he did not resign from office after all.

Through this stately ballet, the Good People of Minnesota continued to wonder: Why did this bridge suddenly pancake on an August evening and who (if anyone) in authority had an inkling of its poor rating when last inspected?

On the other hand, many people felt that a time of tragedy is no time to be pointing the finger of blame. Many men who have shot their wives have felt the same way. Nevertheless, the Good People wonder: When will the person who is in charge here step forward and say something halfway sensible?

Minnesota is a state of rivers, the Old Man and his many tributaries, and what is unsettling is the list released by the state showing 36 major bridges even more deficient than the bridge that fell down. Most of them have not been inspected for a couple years and presumably have not improved in that time. It's wonderful to be in a time of healing, but when I head down to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for my annual checkup, should I take Highway 52, which crosses the Mississippi and the Zumbro rivers, both bridges on the questionable list? There are alternative routes but these involve crossing bridges with sufficiency ratings of 38.3 and 35.6 (the collapsed bridge was rated 50).

Unless the bridges get blown up by helpful terrorists, making us eligible for Halliburton to come in and rebuild them, I don't imagine that much will happen. There will be an investigation and someday, when we are much older, we will learn that the bridge collapsed due to a unique set of circumstances that could not have been predicted by anybody. Nobody had sex with that woman. Everybody was doing a heckuva job.

I like the Mayo Clinic a lot and prefer it to the chiropractor down the street, but of course this is my responsibility and not the state of Minnesota's. The day when we look to big government for solutions to our transportation problems is gone. Our governor has twice vetoed a 7.5-cent increase in the state gasoline tax to pay for road and bridge repair. He believes it is dumb. So it's up to us to solve our own problems. Rochester is 88 miles away. Northwest Airlines offers seven flights daily for a roundtrip fare of about 500 bucks, or slightly more than the fare to New York. You want to visit Rochester, pay your own freight. Don't expect Minnesota to take care of you.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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