RUINS OF EMPIRE

I lived in Southern Indiana for nearly seven years, during which I made the 90-minute trip to Louisville, KY any number of times when I needed big city amenities. It's a nice place. I always enjoyed the drive from Indiana across the Ohio River on one of the many bridges connecting the two states. One of the major routes into the city connects L-Ville and New Albany, Indiana via I-64/US 150. That is, it did until a few weeks ago when the Sherman Minton Bridge was declared structurally unsound and closed due to cracks in its main supports.

The bridge, named after a New Albany native who served in the Senate and on the U.S. Supreme Court, is a six-lane, two-deck design completed in 1962. As it nears its 50th birthday, the millions of cars, trucks, and trains that have crossed it have taken their toll. It is in the approximate condition we would expect of a major piece of infrastructure that was built during flush times and, the occasional re-paving notwithstanding, left to its own devices since.

Stories like this should be a great embarrassment to Americans, a tangible sign that our nation hit its high water mark in 1960 and has been sliding into disrepair ever since. We have numerous examples of major pieces of infrastructure literally crumbling around us – our power grid, the water and sewage systems in our major cities, our highways and bridges, and even our slowest-in-the-world internet/telecommunications network – and yet all anyone can do is whine about taxes, get hard-ons for austerity, and wonder why everything isn't repaired to their liking.

Federal funds for highway and bridge projects come from a gasoline surtax, one which hasn't been raised (not even to meet inflation) since Bill Clinton raised it an astonishing four cents in 1996. Since raising taxes is, you know, completely off the table, states have had to repair an aging and increasingly creaky highway network with a pool of money that, in real terms, is shrinking annually.

We are very much a country clinging to faded glory, and I don't think there is a better symbol of where we are right now than dilapidated Cold War era bridges. They're falling apart and all we can do is fill comment sections with bitching and moaning about big government, tax-and-spend libruls, and how the problem would already be solved if the government didn't spend so much on (insert thing that does not directly benefit the person using this rhetorical tactic). When we finally take time out from congratulating ourselves on being the #1 super-greatest country in the history of the world to recognize that, frankly, this place is turning into kind of a dump, it will already be too late.

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35 Responses to “RUINS OF EMPIRE”

  1. wetcasements Says:

    Love it or leave it.

    I left.

  2. Comrade Luke Says:

    WHY AREN'T YOU WEARING A FLAG PIN ON YOUR LAPEL?

    Priorities.

  3. RandyH Says:

    Yup.

  4. Middle Seaman Says:

    The deteriorating infrastructure is the tip of the iceberg of the trouble we are in. The US now is a country gone totally insane. Our relatively low taxes are widely considered by us outrageously high. Our under-regulated economy, water and air, services and education are considered by us to suffer from too much regulation.

    This list goes on almost forever. We have in reality one political party, no liberals to speak of, no free media, a mediocre education system that everyone proposes to make even worse by insanity driven plans.

    It's the Theater of the Absurd that toke over a country.

  5. Xynzee Says:

    @Middle: "We have in reality one political party…"

    Beg to differ. There are two distinct parties: the ineffectual party and the insane party ;)

  6. Neal Deesit Says:

    In a similar vein, Prof. Robert Hockett's essay on Deficit Attention Disorder.

  7. Tim H. Says:

    Remember when conservatives fought, not to cut, but for value for tax $? Contemporary conservatives need a different name.

  8. comrade x Says:

    " Contemporary conservatives need a different name."

    I call them what they are. Children.

  9. c u n d gulag Says:

    Conservatives need to realize that this isn't' like marriage, where, as the beautiful first wife starts to age, and sag, and wrinkle, they can just go out and get a brand new young 'Trophy Country."
    Well, not unless they want to move, anyway…

    Right now, this county needs a lot of cosmetic surgery, or else we'll soon be on life support.
    We need to at least start by performing liposuction on some wealthy wallets, and then we've got to do a lot of lifting, tucking, scraping, rebuilding, etc…
    There's also a lot of boob jobs we need to take into consideration – the Republicans and Red Dog Democrats (I call them that, 'cause there ain't nothin' blue about 'em!) in Congress and their Whoreporatist pimps.
    And I don't think anything short of radical elimination surgery will do anything about that. Preferably with no anasthesia!

  10. squirrelhugger Says:

    Why do you hate America? We were peaking in at least 1965.
    http://robertreich.org/, among several hundred others.

    "Contemporary conservatives need a different name." Reactionaries, goddamnit. It's in the dictionary and everything.

  11. Coffeeman Says:

    We started down this broken road during the Vietnam debacle…anyone remember Guns and Butter? All governments lie, but without a critical media, the lies become easier and easier to sell. Politicians make choices that keep them in power. Bush I was proof positive that doing the right thing (in that case, raising taxes) doesn't get you re-elected.

    Now that our public education has been decimated for over 30 years, what are the chances that the public deals rationally with our present condition?

    The only way things change in any country is when there is a crisis. I'd say that with what's going on in the world wide financial arena, we are about to see some interesting decisions: military spending or closed bridges?

    Guns OR butter…

  12. bb in GA Says:

    "It's the Theater of the Absurd that toke over a country"

    Yeah, I think that is part of the problem. I quit smoking everything but an occasional cigar about 40 years ago.

    //bb

  13. J. Dryden Says:

    I'd push our peak a bit farther, to wit, this revised headline:

    July 21, 1969 – New York Times

    MEN WALK ON THE MOON.
    Oh, And Just A Head's Up, This Is It, The High-water Mark Of American Engineering And Awesomeness. It's All Downhill From Here. Suck It, The Future.

    As someone who drives across a chasm-spanning bridge just outside Cleveland on my daily commute, let me just say this: Fuck. I'm dead. Closed-casket dead.

  14. Fifth Dentist Says:

    Our modern class of Galts can just take their private helicopters everyhere they need to go.
    They don't need no steenkin' roads … or bridges, or publice education, or clean public water supplies, or taxpayer-provided police protection as they have private police in their gated communities, or on and on.

  15. Elder Futhark Says:

    "fill comment sections with bitching and moaning"

    Yeah. Not like here.

    China was the 12th century superpower. Meanwhile, I guess you should just bitch and moan about getting cornholed with that scaly reptilian dick, huh? Or move to another country. Go Galt! is just another name for crawling back up inside your daddy's shriveled old nutsack and hiding out til things get better.

    So, I guess America has the 29th century to look forward to, eh?

  16. Mike Says:

    In the comments secton of the linked article, readers pinpointed the real culprits: Democrats and people on welfare, of course.

  17. whetstone Says:

    The screeching wingnut who takes up (some) of the column space in my local newspaper (there's plenty to go around) was bitching today about the TOTALLY UNFAIR hike in tollway fares that's planned here in IL.

    The rates haven't been raised in two or three decades. In constant dollars, they're like 1/3 of what they were when the tollway opened.

    How it works: scared polls kick the can down the road until it's almost too late, then the volk get angry–not entirely unjustifiably–when services go up 80% because people were too chickenshit to pay for them. In Chicago the aldercreatures were unwilling to raise parking meter rates for years… so they sold the entire system to a GS-backed conglomerate just so the massive increase could be shouldered off on a private company (and the profits were used almost instantaneously to meet the budget deficit).

    Then the ignorati get pissed that they're paying basically the same fees they should have been paying all along. They do have something of a point that a massive increase all at once makes it hard for normal folk to budget, but they conveniently ignore that infrastructure maintenance doesn't magically get cheaper over decades.

  18. c u n d gulag Says:

    They have to fix the bridges and overpasses.
    And soon!

    They can't expect the growing number of homeless unemployed people to live under unsafe ones that are likely to collapse, now can they?

    Never mind.
    Don't answer that.

  19. Turok Says:

    I guess I'm spoiled here. Due to it being a relatively new city, and having weather that discourages erosion, Phoenix actually has some of the best infrastructure in the country. Whenever I leave this city, I'm astonished by the condition of roads and buildings…most of the nation looks like a developing country to me.

  20. PWL Says:

    Word, dude. 'Nuff said.

  21. Ellie Says:

    "Then the ignorati get pissed that they're paying basically the same fees they should have been paying all along. They … conveniently ignore that infrastructure maintenance doesn't magically get cheaper over decades."

    In partial defense of the "ignorati", part of the problem here is that real wages have not increased to enable people to pay more or less the same percentage of income for these fees – or anything else, for that matter. If wages had kept pace, gradual increases in tolls or transit prices that you pay to get to your job really shouldn't be painfull – you pay a little more to go to and from work, but you get paid a little more at work, so it washes out.

    On the other hand, I'm sure many of the same "ignorati" have voted for politicians who oppose minimum-wage increases, collective bargaining, and progressive taxation, while supporting policies that encourage job outsourcing, etc.

    Because OF COURSE none of the latter has ANYTHING to do with the former. The fact that your commuter costs have gone up and now you can't make ends meet on your stagnant (or declining) income is actually the fault of gay marriage and black people. Or gay black marraige. Or something.

  22. Sarah Says:

    I wish this was a casual conversation instead of comments because it turns out I have a lot to say about that bridge. Since this is a comment on a blog I just want to say that I thought this is what those famous "shovel ready" projects were supposed to be? But I guess I'm wrong. Too bad, because that bridge is kind of an icon, at least to me.

  23. johnsmith1882 Says:

    @Sarah: a) only $27 billion out of the $780 billion in the Recovery and Reinvestment Act was earmarked for repairing bridge and highway infrastructure. b) your state government decided on what to spend the money it got. c) whether you live in Kentucky or Indiana, your state government decided to spend the money elsewhere. Thus, d) yeah, you are wrong.

  24. sluggo Says:

    @ Turok

    Just don't come asking for our water.

  25. Sarah Says:

    @johnsmith1882
    It's cute you thought I wasn't being cynical and sarcastic about "shovel-ready" projects just now. I kind of thought that was a given on this blog. I do appreciate your taking the time to explain those big numbers to me though.

  26. Major Kong Says:

    I'm thinking we didn't really win the Cold War. We just didn't lose as quickly as the Soviets did.

  27. Ken Says:

    @Fifth Dentist: They don't need no … taxpayer-provided police protection as they have private police in their gated communities….

    They have to come out sometime, and that's when Humongous will get them. If they try to hide inside, the siege will force them out – and just think how much faster a siege will be nowadays, when those inside need not just food and water, but electricity and natural gas and phone and internet.

  28. sarah's point was good Says:

    I like what Sarah said there. What did qualify for "shovel ready"? I thought to some degree the initial phases of planning/NEPA/years of public process had to be taken care of. This is not to say that those processes are bad – they do result in sound public policy, but on the other hand they take years and often make people feel like government has a lot of process work and no actual brick and mortar result. I don't know the details of that particular bridge, but I can think of a project/bridge in Missoula, MT that has dragged on for 15 years with no end in sight. I think this does contribute to the phenomenon of people not really understanding what the government is doing anymore. Does it beat the Philippines where govt pols can just make decisions with no public process? I don't know anymore.

  29. mclaren Says:

    But the good news is that with Peak Oil, we won't be needing our crumbling bridges and highways. Because we'll be traveling by mule.

  30. cromartie Says:

    As someone who drives across a chasm-spanning bridge just outside Cleveland on my daily commute, let me just say this: Fuck. I'm dead. Closed-casket dead.

    No, Dryden, you're fine. Despite the general incompetence that permeates this failure of a state, ODOT is actually rebuilding the bridges in Cleveland in an almost timely manner.

  31. Ike Says:

    I've recently done subcontract work on a “shovel ready” stimulus money project for a large, um, organization that does things on behalf of the government. Basically a big pile of money was shoved at an ill-conceived, poorly engineered, and barely functional … system. It's completely unneeded, redundant, and has no built-in longevity. In fact, I think it will be impossible to replace the batteries because of flaws in the design. I could describe the fiasco in more detail except I'd like to maintain deniability. That said, it did keep about 20 of us employees working hard for about three weeks to meet some crucial deadline from the government contractor engineer types. As we packed the stupid product into boxes I couldn't help but think to myself how few people were benefited by such a wasteful, useless, and costly project. Stimulus money largely went down the toilet.

  32. Kaleberg Says:

    Ike: Did you actually flush your pay down the toilet or did you spend it? If you spent it, then the stimulus worked. Otherwise the toilet won.

  33. lfv Says:

    Kaleberg, not if you go dig it up!