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Tuesday Talk: Headed for infrastructure collapse?

July 31, 2012 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

Following the I-35W bridge collapse, Minnesota policymakers enacted a comprehensive bridge repair funding plan. Since then, the state has embarked on a fix-it-first transportation infrastructure strategy. However, our infrastructure needs extend far beyond just roads and bridges. More than 200 rural Minnesota towns need sewer system upgrades. Numerous other water, power, and telecommunications lines are aging—many past their life expectancy.

The billions necessary for statewide upgrades is a lot of money to bury underground, but critically important for public health and commerce.

How can we convince the public and policymakers these improvements are worth the investment?    

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Sue B says:

    July 31, 2012 at 8:27 am

    People should be convinced to go forward with many of these infrastructure improvements because:

    1)  It would put people back to work, lowering the unemployment rate and improving the economy of the state.  Part of the money invested in infrastructure would be paid back to the state in the form of taxes.
    2)  It will never be cheaper to do it than it is right now.  Interest rates are so low, they are practically non-existent.  If we wait until the economy improves and we have a surplus (it could be a very long wait), the cost will be much higher. 
    3)  It should not be political.  It’s a safety factor for everyone.  The odds of a new Lexus or an old rusted-out hunk of junk being on a collapsing bridge are about equal.  Infrastructure is too easy to put off until a disaster occurs.

    These are only a few reasons why we should go forward rebuilding our infrastructure, but I fear that the right-wing do-nothing state legislature (and congress in Washington) will refuse.  Instead we get an “austerity program” that we know doesn’t work.  Thank goodness FDR didn’t have to work with these guys.

  • Cee Vee says:

    July 31, 2012 at 8:32 am

    If the I35 bridge collapse didn’t make an impression on them, nothing will.  Perhaps a replay of the news coverage from this event is in order for the memory-challenged officials.

    Our legislators need to be reminded that their first priority is not to cut taxes and shrink government but rather to take care of the state and the people therein.

  • Mike Downing says:

    July 31, 2012 at 8:32 am

    This is a very easy question to answer. All our elected officials need to do is to treat our tax dollars like their own income and prioritize the use of the tax dollars like we do as individuals. There would be more than enough tax dollars for infrastructure if they would simply prioritize.

    As a suggestion, stop all LRT “investment” and use these savings for buses, roads & bridges that the vast majority of Minnesotans will actually use.

  • Barbara Miller says:

    July 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

    This question speaks to the whole matter of political sturm und drang that has short-circuited the synapses of most Minnesotans.

    The sound and fury thing is calculated to drown facts. It’s something the noise machine people understand very well, i.e., shout down the truth-tellers so that their message(s)cannot be heard. Further, they generate juicy distractions that keep politicians and just plain folks in a relatively constant whiplash mode.

    Full disclosure: I have been known to shout. I used to do it sometimes while parenting. In retrospect, I can see my most effective messaging to my kids was when I spoke quietly, but firmly, and kept talking through their interruptions (”...but, Mommmm….”) until I said what needed saying (IMO).

    It seems to me that many (most?) people—civilians and pols alike—find facts tedious, especially if they exceed Tweet length.

    So I recommend something like an executive summary in bullet points as prologue to this and every other fiscal discussion.  Each bullet-pointed fact must be footnoted with a credible, ideally non-partisan source.  Yup, every fact, every time.

    Then, in accompanying material (written or verbal), the following must be laid out: “If this is not attended to, this is what will happen.”  Cause and effect, concisely stated.  And again, footnoted re source.

    Repeat, repeat, repeat.  Even the most efficient human surge protector may not allow for ever-lasting willful ignorance.

    That’s my simplistic thought.



  • Mike Downing says:

    July 31, 2012 at 9:08 am

    Cee Vee: You need to read the I35 bridge collapse report. The collapse was due to the original design and installation of the bridge. It was not due to a lack of maintenance funds as you insinuate but a fundamental human mistake made in the design & construction of the original bridge.

  • Ginny says:

    July 31, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I like several of the ideas commenters made. I think we should bring it to the attention of voter and politicians alike as a chorus of consequences if we do and if we don’t. Along with images of the bridge collapse. There were warnings about this bridge, and in a conference several months earlier, the state (Pawlenty and his vp whose name I gratefully forget) decided to pass. I have always felt P had blood on his hands. For a few hours he caught the truth, but after a day of lobbying (or so I gather) by conservatives, he changed his mind and refused to raise the gas tax. The Legislature (Rs and Ds alike) overrode him.
    On the positive side, consequences do include providing new jobs and creating a long-term infrastructure and a guarantee to Minnesotans that this won’t happen again.
    I just hope we acquire more DFL members in our Legislature to override the vetoes of all new spending. It is a failure to look ahead and see how much it will cost in the future to build and fix.

  • Cee Vee says:

    July 31, 2012 at 10:53 am

    To be honest, I haven’t read the report. Isn’t this defect something a timely bridge inspection should have revealed? 
    The fact remains that we need investment in infrastructure rather than cuts in this area.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    July 31, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Pretending that public spending is a bad thing is a problem both nationally and internationally.  We see such deep austerity in David Cameron’s England that their excellent health care system may collapse. College tuition has gone through the roof, and in general he is attacking any program that seeks to make life better for the poor, aged and disabled.  The tragedy there is that Cameron has instituted austerity for NO good reason.  The result is that England’s economy is shrinking while people suffer needlessly. Those of Greece and Spain are shrinking even faster. 

    In our own country that same attitude prevails in the no tax/no spend right Wing members of government.  They may not see the value of public investment in infrastructure until they can’t reach their own homes because potholes have become craters.  And not until they can’t drink the water coming out of their faucets and have to find money for private charters when lack of government supported has killed the public school system. 

    Fred Block has said we have not one but two economies—the Thing Economy which creates wealth and the Care Economy which uses part of that wealth to maintain both infrastructure and social needs (education, health care, the arts).  When the Care Economy is short-changed, it doesn’t take long for the Thing Economy to fail without the societal supports that enable it to succeed.

  • Bernie says:

    July 31, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Approval was given to spend 1 billion dollars to build a 14 mile light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul to be used by a relatively small percentage of the state’s population. Time will tell if that project was critically important to commerce. With a billion dollars each of those 200 rural Minnesota towns you referenced needing sewer system upgrades could have been given 5 million dollars towards their infrastructure improvements. Once again it seems like a matter of priorities Joe,  If you want to convince the public; prioritize.

  • Ron Leurquin says:

    July 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    LRT’s are a good thing for our long term goals in the metro area.  I know, thier but ugly expensive, but well worth the investment if your actually able to look at things long term.

    Study after study has been done (funded by you and I the taxpayer) that show that over time any and all bus systems along the central corridor will break down (ie fail to keep up with demand), and an LRT does not.

    LRT’s are very fixed things, thier routes cant be moved at the whim of metro transit.  this gives the nodes where the stops are the confidence that the stop will be ther for a long long time, and thus the riders coming to that area.  This will cause developement around the stations to occur that will have business in them to support the area around it.

    They polute far less than the busses that move the same number of people.  The power plants that produce the elctricity needed over time will polute less as well.  LRT’s dont have to rely on liquid forms of fosil fuel as our cars and busses do.

    Get over it already.

    Our elected jut decide that we need a sports palace at your expense more than we need briges that wont colapse during rush hour.  the decided to creat a funding stream to pay for it, and if that funding stream doesn twork, well some ofthat fall son Mpls property tax payers and some of it onot aoll Mn residents to pay out of the general fund.

    That money could have just as easlity been used to take care of thoe 200 rural water treatment plants too, and created something far more cost effective and beneficial to far more people than the ziggy dome ever will.

    Yes, its priorities, and our electeds would do better if they worked with our money af if it was thier won rather than some one elses.  At lest with LRT funding were getting a boat load of money from the feds for a bucket load for MN tax dollars.  and keep in mind, if we didnt do an LRT there are other places that would, so they would be getting that fed funding and not MN.

    We need good roads, bridges, schools, colleges and libraries.  all of which will bring us jobs, incresed tax revenue, and less likely hood f dying due to the road falling out from under you on the way to a viking game.

  • Jean Lewandowski says:

    July 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Sue B. is right on target.  Those opposed to spending money on infrastructure tend to use fuzzy arguments based on their pre-disposed political leanings:  budget cuts and low taxes are the answer to everything.  There are historically accurate, fact-based, economically sound responses to the austerity rhetoric.  They should be presented to the public and to decision-makers in clear, concise language, as Sue has done. 

    There is a broader set of questions I keep asking myself, too:  what kind of country allows its infrastructure to crumble, while people who need and want jobs are waiting for the private sector to stop hoarding its profits and create those jobs?  What kind of country makes it harder and harder for young people to afford the education it takes to enter the work force at a level at which they can support themselves?  What kind of country appears satisfied to have wealth become more and more concentrated among fewer and fewer people, then use that wealth to buy political favors?  This is not healthy.  It reminds me of the government our Russian friend described after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Free enterprise was the nominal goal, but the real outcome was a corrupt oligarchy. 

    I dearly, sincerely hope that thoughtful, moderate leaders of all political persuasions can come together and make sure that our antiquated, crumbling infrastructure doesn’t become the symbol of a political system that has quit working for the people.

  • Bernie says:

    July 31, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    You cannot justify one bad decision by referencing another bad decision Ron. I agree with your assessment of the Vikings Stadium. Together they represent almost 2 billion dollars that could have been put to use for the common good of all Minnesotans, not just a select few. We need to take a careful look at our spending priorities.

  • Mike Downing says:

    July 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Cee Vee: There were in fact many bridge inspections on the I35 bridge and none of them identified the design & construction defect. Rightly or wrongly, bridge inspections assume the original design and construction was not flawed from the beginning.

  • Cee Vee says:

    July 31, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Regardless of whether this claim is true or not(and I don’t have the time right now to research your claim), we still need to invest in our infrastructure. 
    (And it defies logic that a bridge could completely collapse without ANY prior warning signs.)

  • Paul Harder says:

    July 31, 2012 at 5:27 pm


    While I agree on the idea of prioritization of state funds, you should get the numbers correct. The State of Minnesota’s share of the Central Corridor LRT project is $92 million, not nearly $1 billion. The remainder of the money is mostly Federal funds 50% and money from the cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, The Counties of Ramsey and Hennepin and something called the Counties Transit Improvement Board, with a little bit from the Met Council. So in all fairness only $92M could be spread out to the tune of $460K to each of the 200 projects you mention. Having worked for a public works department of a midwestern city some 30 years ago, that much money might pave your street.

    It’s estimated that the 3100 workers that will help build the Central Corridor LRT will pay taxes on $252 million over the life of the project.At least some of that $92M will come back to the state in the form of state income taxes from the workers, not to mention the increased money from economic expansion along the corridor.

    And no, it’s not likely I will be one that uses it and yes, I do work along the path.

  • TONY says:

    July 31, 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Mike, so you dont like lite rail, fine. What do I tell the many business owners that ask me as a county official to provide they and their employees a light rail line? Costs up front are nasty but upkeep is practically nothing when compared to buses. You need to figure out how our parents handled paying for roads & bridges & subsidize higher ed. so a student could pay for college w/a part-time job. They subsidized the cost of the U of M at 70% of cost & we cover 7%. How do we educate the poor & middleclass & let them achieve the American dream…

  • Mike Downing says:

    August 1, 2012 at 9:11 am


    The American Dream is available to all if one majors in STEM curricula. It is not available for majors such as English, geography, sociology, polisci, psychology, theater, etc. unless one’s parents pay for their education. We live in a much more technology based and global world than we did just 30 years ago.  Our global competitors know this and are turning out many more engineers and scientists than we do Americans.

    An iPad or iPhone 5 is not the same as a buggy whip or a horse shoe.

  • Mike Downing says:

    August 1, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Cee Vee,

    As an engineer, I can tell you it is very logical that visual bridge inspections would not detect a design problem.

    Fortunately, we have learned from the I35 bridge collapse and are now inspecting load bearing gusset plates differently now AND we are using IR, etc. instrumentation to “see below the surface” during bridge inspections.

  • Ginny says:

    August 1, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Mike is an engineer and thinks like one. In this country, we do not force people into specific occupations as is (was) done in China, whether the person is capable or not. If you think the only way to be successful is to major in one of the technology based disciplines, you are missing the point of education.
    Liberal arts are the main reason we go to college. For a long time, unfortunately, we phrase college and university degrees only with finding a job. The real purpose is to help train the mind to understand, analyze, critique, come up with alternatives to ideas, and to be a good citizen. In short, to help a student learn how to THINK.
    Many employers say, in fact, that the person who has a basic well-rounded education is a better employee because they can more quickly learn and learn to adapt and they can use what they have learned in our changing environment.
    Since our work environment is changing by the day, we need people who are able to quickly shift gears. I’ve been in jobs where suddenly, everything changed, and I had to learn a lot of new skills. So, I adapted, learned, and did fine.
    I think you should have had more liberal arts classes—history, geography, political science, literature, and the like to help you learn new things.
    I know people like you. I used to work with engineers (computer science) and many many of them could not understand what it was they now needed to do—or they did not consider it important.
    I’m sure they’re long gone.

  • TONY says:

    August 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Mike, last time I looked a degree in English cost the same as an electrical engineering degree. Stiil havent answered why we cant subsidize the cost of college as our parents did. Saddleing a kid with $80000 to $160000 in debt after college is no way to start your life.  A friend of mine is a State Rep. & she said the highway dept. went to Molnau before the bridge collapse to get a piece of equipment to inspct bridges for micro-fractures & she said no & the bridge collapsed. I’m sure they have one now but explain that to the victims…

  • Mike Downing says:

    August 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    No Ginny, I think like someone trained in finance, economics and rational thinking who has calculated many ROIs (Return On Investments) throughout their professional career to justify an investment. Most students will never obtain a positive financial ROI from the the easy social “sciences”.

    Anyone majoring in these easy social “sciences” lose their bitching license if they do not consider whether or not their income can justify the easy social sciences.

  • Mike Downing says:

    August 1, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you for making my point Tony. The investment is indeed the same for an English major and for an Engineer. The Engineer will make 3-5X that of an English major hence can justify the investment whereas the English major may never be able to pay back their student loans.

    Our society’s high standard of living is dependent on the U.S. being more innovative and more competitive. Perhaps we need to subsidize STEM students and actually increase the educational costs for the easy social “sciences” in order to incentivize more American STEM graduates.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    August 1, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    There is nothing “easy” about the social sciences, many of which require the use of sophisticated methods of research. In addition, the humanities opens the mind to creativity and possibility, no matter what a person’s occupation. 

    A retired teacher who named Laraine Tracy cited this quote in a letter to the editor last year (Star Tribune, 08/24/2011):

    “The study of the Humanities helps students to question like philosophers, hear like musicians, see like artists, think like logicians, dream like visionaries, and love like men of God” (source unknown).”

    I’d say including these qualities in any engineer’s education would make him/her exceptionally inventive and better able to solve problems.   


  • Ginny says:

    August 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Emotions ALWAYS come into play when people are making decisions. Always. Scientists who can now watch the brain at work through images can see what parts of the brain are active when people are doing a variety of tasks. Emotions are always involved even if you don’t know it.
    I think your statement about rational thinking is fraught with emotion. If we had a polygraph (which is not 100% accurate), we could tell that emotions kicked in when you’re challenged, and as far as I can tell, almost always go back to the familiar. Your viewpoints, which also have some facts behind them (not always) are also fraught with emotion. So are mine and mine are also fraught with emotion. But I recognize that and am aware of this and know how emotions plays into my beliefs.
    There plenty of literature on how the brain works that you can easily find. It will be eye opening (or brain opening).  I have seen several programs on PBS that that can show, live, brain activity. (I recommend Nova; that’s where many of these science programs are shown. You cannot watch these dramas, like the Fabric of the Universe) without stirring up emotions.
    In fact, people who are brain damaged through an accident, for example, that harms that part of the brain, have a great deal of trouble making decisions.
    You can protest these findings if you want—but that just means your emotions are fully at work. So are mine. I recommend you expand your reading—into literature (you can learn a lot about brains and behavior in novels and poems), history, geography, history, and so on. You would definitely use all parts of your brain.
    Now, I think you said something about liberal arts being “easy,” or something. That is a joke. You haven’t taken these classes, or not enough of them. And you seem to think we should all fit into your mold and we’ll be successful.
    This should stir up your blood pressure a little.
    Read more.

  • Mike Downing says:

    August 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm


    Every engineer I knew took the social “sciences” as electives. They were all remarkably easy A grades. Students who partied & flunked out of engineering, chemistry or physics majored in business or the social “sciences”.

  • TONY says:

    August 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Mike, I understand the need for more engineers. I have several friends who have lost their jobs to foreign engineers who are happy to make $30000/year. So how do they pay their loans now? You still wont answer my question of why we make college so expensive for everybody. Social sciences are easy? Try taking my son’s(A.P. English Lit. teacher) final test…