Bridge collapse raises a note of caution about the need for transportation funding

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by John M. Mann

The recent collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis was a tragedy that has shaken America’s confidence in its highway system.  Because many members of our organization — the American Council of Engineering Companies of Virginia — design roads and bridges across the commonwealth and beyond, we, too, are dismayed and deeply saddened by the apparent failure of this section of our national infrastructure.

While many are already speculating about what went so terribly wrong, to the point of pointing fingers of blame or trying to identify causes, it will take an army of experts months of thorough investigation and analysis before coming to a credible conclusion. 

In the saddest possible way, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis has forced the people of America and our various elected officials to recognize the dire need to review our legislative attitudes concerning transportation funding and priorities.

We here in Virginia were spared the tragedy of Minnesota, but, in reality, the collapse could have occurred in virtually any state in the union.  The Old Dominion, however, has not been spared a long and rancorous battle over the state of the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure and how to go about bringing it up to the levels we need to meet the public and commercial demands of an expanding population and growing economy.

The recent session of the General Assembly adjourned on a relatively high note, assuming it had faced the music and provided a “fix” that would meet our transportation needs.  However, the legislature has not found a permanent and satisfactory solution to Virginia’s aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure.  One key element to the funding scheme, the extraordinarily high fines for in-state driving violations, wrecked nearly as soon as it left the starting gate in July.
Delay, neglect and patchwork fixes are not an answer.  Virginia needs and deserves better.  America needs and deserves better.

It is too early to determine exactly what went awry on the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, and it is late in the game to take stock of the decaying and dangerous condition of too many of Virginia’s roads and bridges.  Virginia may never suffer a spectacular failure, but a bridge does not have to collapse for us to have failed in our commitment and responsibility to provide safe, efficient and effective means for our citizens and businesses to survive and prosper.

Virginians may well accept solutions our legislators fear to face. There are funding options still on the table that would be more equitable and productive without incurring voters’ wrath like $2,000 driving fines. Without standing up to the hard choices and hard decisions lawmakers and the public face, Virginia could possibly experience its own catastrophic infrastructure failure.

John M. Mann is president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Virginia. He also is president of Mann & Associates in Roanoke.

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