Thursday, August 02, 2007

The 35W Bridge in Minneapolis

Does civic engagement affect our responses to metal fatigue? Probably yes, as I reflected upon it this morning.

Everyone in Minnesota, and many throughout the nation and the world, watched events unfold Wednesday evening in the aftermath of the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River. Today, we could view a tape of the actual collapse. The victims and their families have directly experienced a tragedy, and continue to do so; all of us feel the effects.

Today, the morning after the collapse, I had an 8:00 a.m. meeting with an advisory committee to discuss how to measure "Civic Engagement" as part of our Twin Cities Compass initiative, intended to measure the quality of life in the Twin Cities region. Prior to the meeting, I had wondered if committee members would attend, given the emotionally stressful events of the previous evening, not to mention potential traffic problems in the morning. I even had considered canceling the meeting.

I'm glad we met, not just because we productively accomplished our work, but because the meeting offered me the chance to reflect on the fact that civic engagement does very much relate to what happened to the bridge and on the bridge.

We have structures and infrastructures of all kinds in this world. They enable us to travel, communicate, and get important things done. Similar to people, they get old. Bridges get old.

Who should decide when to replace an aging bridge - engineers and other technicians? public officials? the general public? The experts gave this bridge a "sufficiency rating" of 50%, meaning from their point of view that it "might" need to be replaced; they rated its "structural members" at 4 on a scale of 9. Should it have been replaced? Who decides?

These decisions are not purely technical. They involve values; they involve hard decisions about costs. They pit different needs against one another, since money spent on bridge replacement cannot pay for something else. The decisions have implications that people feel directly, for example, in the time it takes them to travel, and in the taxes they have to pay.

Good decisions require informed and engaged members of the community. Productive action must be nonpartisan (or cooperatively multi-partisan), not motivated by attention only to rigid political or ideological agendas. Long-term thinking (which some politicians will not do) is required.

So, when we consider what happens to bridges, roads, and other physical structures, we must remain aware that our action or inaction, our interest or apathy, determine how safe we will be when we ride in cars, buses, trains, and planes. For the 35W bridge, some person or persons made the decision that the 50% rating was good enough not to make structural work a priority. Perhaps more people should be involved in that type of decision, in addition to many other decisions that literally affect our lives.

What about on the bridge? There we saw civic engagement at its finest in a crisis situation. Everyone - our police and fire services, service agencies like the Red Cross, nearby residents, passers-by, drivers (some of whom narrowly missed catastrophe), and others - pitched in, in some cases risking their lives.

I could not be near enough to get on that bridge to help people last night; but I'm very happy to be part of a process that can bring our region together to examine our trends and needs and to get mechanisms in place that will prevent future tragedies of this type.

That's why our meeting this morning - while it might seem remote from the victims, the crushed cars, the jumbled slabs of concrete - while it might seem irrelevant to engineering studies and reports - has great significance. We need civic engagement; we need good information that engaged citizens can use. Our lives and well-being depend on it.

As a footnote, three of the thirteen people in the room this morning had a close connection to victims on or near the bridge at the time of the collapse. One of these victims was seriously injured and is waiting for a decision about surgery. So, 3 of 13 at "one degree of separation" from people directly involved; my guess is that the rest of us in the room are only "two degrees" separated from the tragedy - that is, we most likely know someone who is personally linked to a victim.

That shows how much of a community we are - and demonstrates how important it is for us, as community members to make our region a better place to live!

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