Admit it. You had to feel a bit of anxiety when you rolled across the Hood River Toll Bridge after hearing about the highway bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minnesota. That bridge was built in 1967, while our bridge across the Columbia River was built in 1926.
The bridge in Minnesota had been categorized as "structurally deficient," and plans were in the works to build a new bridge -- in 2012. The Hood River Toll Bridge is also categorized as "structurally deficient," and many people have been working to get a new one built for years. But a new span is probably at least 10 years away.
OK, we're not trying to scare anyone. The fact is, we have no realistic choice but to use that bridge when we go back and forth to Oregon (although it is yet another reason to stay and shop and dine here in Bingen and White Salmon).
Besides, it's not just our local toll bridge that's a concern. In the state of Washington, there are 2,015 bridges rated as "structurally deficient" or "functionally obsolete." In Oregon, there are 1,784 bridges that fall in those categories. We can't drive without encountering them at some point, it's as simple as that.
So really, the only answer is for our federal government and states to invest in rebuilding and repairs of our bridges and highways. A massive public works project such as this would not only employ thousands, but it would boost the economy (provided, of course, we use American workers and American materials -- including American steel and concrete -- to do the work, rather than bringing in supplies from China and outsourcing our jobs, as we've been seeing way too much of lately).
Here are the sobering facts: Engineers have rated more than 75,500 bridges in the United States as structurally deficient. The estimated price tag to repair them all has been pegged at about $188 billion, and of course the work would take years to complete.
But the price tag and daunting amount of toil and time it will take is no reason not to get started. This has always been a "can-do" nation, and a huge endeavor such as this one is precisely the type of effort that could inspire a generation of workers and engineers. Besides, human lives are obviously at risk as our infrastructure decays. These bridges are old and getting older by the minute, so putting off the fix would be a fool's solution.
We don't enjoy going back to the cost of the war in Iraq to draw examples of the choices our leaders make, but the reality is stark: If we stopped throwing money into the desert wind over in Iraq (to date we've spent about $450 billion, and the price tag increases by the second), we'd have plenty of money (and then some) to fix ALL of our deficient bridges. But try explaining that to our political leaders, and good luck.
Then there are the tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest among us. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, the cost of the 2003 tax cuts pushed by President Bush totals at least $350 billion through 2013. Again, rescind that round of tax cuts, and the rebuilding of bridges across the nation could be funded and there would be a hefty amount left over for other projects that would improve the health and safety of American citizens (better levees in the New Orleans area, anyone?).
We all use those bridges, so a per gallon gas tax would make a lot of sense as a way to deal with this too. But will our leaders wake up, or continue to insist on "no new taxes," regardless of the disastrous outcome of that thoughtless approach?
In the end, it's all a matter of our national priorities. Yet the alternative to paying to fix our problems is going to be more infrastructure failures that take lives and play havoc with our transportation networks.
In other words, and to quote the old oil filter ad: "Pay me now, or pay me later." And later will be a lot more costly.