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What Really Failed In Minneapolis?

In 2005 the bridge had been rated "structurally deficient." Although the structurally deficient bridge has been inspected twice since then, fixing it does not appear to have been a political priority.
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The thing about Minnesota is it was built by people who did the job right. Serious people. People who knew they did not want to be screwing around outside repairing things when it was a true 40 below, not just a 40 below wind chill. Wind chill factors are for wimps.

By rights, the state motto, "The Star of the North," should really be, "Maintenance." You can't drive a mile in any direction without running into some form of highway repair or expansion.

So in the wake of the 35 W bridge collapse yesterday, in the 95 degree heat of August, a subliminal thought is beginning to take shape in the communal Minnesota psyche: This isn't supposed to happen here.

After the collapse, many things went extremely right. The emergency services worked in true blue Minnesota fashion. Transportation and communication ran smoothly, if not flawlessly -- the result of a lot of hard work and careful planning. People hurried to the site and pitched in. The people who built Minnesota would have been proud.

But long before the collapse -- in 2005, in fact, the bridge had been rated "structurally deficient" in the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory database. Although the structurally deficient bridge has been inspected twice since then, fixing it does not appear to have been a political priority.

Money is tight. There are differences of opinion as to how to fund projects like repairing infrastructure. The Republicans and Republican governor Tim Pawlenty have vowed no new taxes and want to find creative ways to fund things. The Democrats advocate a more direct, pay as you go approach. There has been gridlock at the capitol for years.

Grridlock isn't supposed to happen here, and, like the phrase, "structurally deficient," it offends the collective Minnesota psyche -- Republican or Democrat.

This morning in Minnesota, leaving "structurally deficient" untended while politicians bicker is beginning to induce a sense of societal guilt. There is a whiff of ancestral disapprobation in the air. This was a state with a solid, bipartisan, "can-do" spirit. We're blowing it.

It's as if, in whistling our way past the expense and priority of "structurally deficient," we let the people who built this optimistic, above average place down. The Star of the North is not as bright somehow -- and won't be for quite a while.

Today, the politicians will walk up to the edge of the hole, stare out at the emptiness, and say a few words. They will come all the way from Washington, looking for a George W. Bush bullhorn at Ground Zero moment as the cameras click.

Down below, the last rescue efforts will flicker out. The recovery process will continue. The investigations will begin.

Half a mile to the south, traffic will crawl across the I-94 bridge, slowed by the usual glut -- plus the glut of re-routed 35 W commuters. Everyone on that bridge will be just a little worried that whatever happened 500 yards to the north might, in fact, happen there.

Months from now, (hopefully in time for the 2008 election) some commission will issue a report. Minnesota will know the causes. If, as some already suspect, showboating fiscal constraints, budget-bending accounting flim-flam, and gridlock born of political ambition led to deferring the project and the expense of repairing the bridge, the pols will be made to know that those kinds of things aren't supposed to happen here.

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