Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Three years after the I-35W bridge collapse, and still three questions not (yet) answered.

Today's post is by Patrick Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life Program in the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. Nunnally is editor of the forthcoming collection The City, the River, the Bridge: Before and after the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse, which will be available in January 2011.



Three years ago this Sunday, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 and seriously injuring more than 100. After 13 hectic months, a new bridge was opened on the alignment of the older one, a new bridge that is bigger, safer, and has direct connections to the university’s Civil Engineering Department for purposes of research and monitoring.

Most of us have put the new bridge out of our minds, perhaps whipping over it as thoughtlessly as we did the old one. Of course, families of victims still face the aftermath of that horrible evening every day, but the new bridge is simply background to our lives for most of us, an unquestioned part of our urban environment.

But I would like to argue that there remain three (at least three) questions that should not be out of our minds, that should be addressed by policymakers, scholars, community leaders, and neighbors who are concerned with the future of our city. My reflections are based on work colleagues and I did for a symposium in October 2008, “The City, the River, the Bridge,” which is the basis for a book forthcoming from U of M Press.

My questions, in no particular order of importance and scale:

Whatever happened to the plans to memorialize the victims, and to create suitable public space underneath the new bridge for bikes and pedestrian trails and for river overlooks?

There was a very schematic sketch of a memorial, which was to have been constructed in Gold Medal Park, near the Guthrie, but those plans dropped from sight almost immediately. Nothing further has been said about bike and pedestrian planning, or public space either, to my knowledge. I’ll grant that the economy has been in the tank for two years, but it looks like instead of the promised elegant public space we simply got another bridge.

What is the state of our public infrastructure, which includes hundreds of miles of water pipes, gas and electric mains, and thousands of miles of streets, in addition to bridges?

Immediately after the collapse, state departments of transportation all over the country rushed to examine bridges similar in structure to the one that fell. A lot of people paid attention to questions about bridges for a little while. I’ve not seen any systematic study of water pipes or other infrastructure components at the local, state, or national scale. Well, I guess we can hope it all works, eh?

When (or will?) we stop building our cities and lives around automobile transportation?

It seems the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brings this question home more forcefully than ever, but there does not seem to be serious change in the offing. After years of unnecessary political delays, it looks like there will be another leg of the regional light rail system coming online soon, but the vast majority of us still buzz around in cars, racking up hundreds of miles a week and pouring dollars into our gas tank.

All of which leaves me wondering:
Did we really, ultimately, learn anything at all?

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Read more about Nunnally's edited collection The City, the River, the Bridge.

Image on this post is from Wikimedia Commons.

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