It's too early to say exactly why the Interstate bridge in Minneapolis collapsed yesterday during rush hour. It's up to the investigators, who will study photos, engineering reports and design documents, and, we hope, ultimately trace this terrible event back to a specific cause. But it's no stretch to say this: America's vast exoskeleton of concrete and steel -- the bridges, highways, tunnels, dams and yes, levees -- that convey us and protect us are stressed, crumbling, and sometimes falling down.
This is a very important issue, with implications for public safety, the economy, and security against terrorist attack. Yet it is also one of the most neglected issues in the country. Infrastructure isn't sexy.
It is when you're building it -- maybe. When the contractors and cement trucks are out in force, money is flowing into the local economy, and people can watch a big project take shape before their eyes, a bridge or a highway is a great thing. After all, reshaping the landscape, putting our mark on it, endlessly reinventing public space, is part of the whole American idea.
Or perhaps I'm just romanticizing an earlier era: that same American impulse has created metastasizing sprawl, and with it a never-ending race to create enough space on the highways. Today, endless construction itself creates endless snarls. The nexus of politics, bureaucracy and contracting can be an invitation to errors. Just ask the people who built the Big Dig and the New Orleans levees.
But any romance is definitively gone once a project is complete. Monitoring it, keeping it up, upgrading it, are all absolutely necessary, but politically and bureaucratically thankless tasks. We keep building new stuff on top of old stuff, and our institutions can't keep up anymore. This is a broad national problem, yet no one takes or seeks responsibility for it. It's a third tier issue in the presidential campaign. Mention the word "infrastructure" and the media fall asleep. (Maybe it's time to come up with a new word.)
It's sad that it takes a disaster to draw attention to this problem. We already live in a world where some want to blow our s*** up. We shouldn't have to worry about it collapsing on its own.