DEEP in the heart of the Minneapolis bridge disaster coverage was a number. It would cost America $188 billion to repair the bridges in the United States that are considered structurally deficient.
The Iraq war has so far cost the United States about $450 billion. So less than half of that now 52-month-long war, if not fought, could have paid to put all of the some 74,000 shaky bridges in 50 states across the country in top shape, making them no longer a danger to Americans.
A certain amount of fanciful calculation has gone into determining what the $450 billion America has spent on the misbegotten Iraq war could have been used to achieve if we hadn t blown it on the war. Areas considered include dams; the electrical grid, which has given Americans some startling wake-up calls in recent years; public transportation; public schools, and aged urban sewage systems.
So let s stop it now. Don t spend any more on the war. Spend it instead on repairing bridges and other critical U.S. infrastructure, making us stronger as a country, more able to resist real threats of terrorism, as opposed to the fictional threats dreamed up by Mr. Bush and his associates. Americans as a whole are now opposed to the continuation of the war and appalled at the growing tally of American dead and wounded.
There is another aspect of the bridges-instead-of-war concept that is very much to the point. Reconstructing America s bridges would create considerable employment, which could serve to absorb returning Iraq war veterans. Many of the jobs created would be high-end engineers, draftsmen, surveyors, supervisors, and crew foremen. There would be work also for 19-year-old ex-Army and Marine Corps privates. Construction work tends to pay well. And if it means sending some veterans back to school to teach them the skills needed to build safe, state-of-the-art bridges and other infrastructure, what better reward could America offer its veterans than strong retraining for new careers?
As for the contractors who have reaped a fortune from defense-related manufacturing of Humvees, bombs, missiles, body armor, and arms, let them beat their swords into plowshares. They can build cranes, bulldozers, and trucks instead of tanks.
Given the American economy s experience of the stimulation provided by construction of the Interstate Highway System beginning in the 1950s, there is every reason to believe that reconstruction of America s infrastructure now would have a comparable positive effect in stirring a somewhat sluggish American economy. Is the current level of our dependence on weapons manufacture and sales healthy in the long term in any case? Does anyone think, for example, that dumping another $50 billion in arms into the combustible Middle East the Bush Administration s latest bright idea is a good thing to do?
Apart from bridges, there is another area where America s infrastructure lags behind other advanced industrial societies. That is in having our electrical and communications wires above rather than below ground. This is partly an aesthetic question, but, more to the point, it is a security issue.
If there is a storm a tornado, a hurricane or even a heavy rain, hail, or snowstorm that brings down wires and poles we become immediately aware of the extreme vulnerability of our system. Since we don t know what will happen next in regard to global warming, it isn t necessary to speculate on whether we are likely to have more or fewer extreme weather events in the future. What we have now is enough to make the point.
Many developed countries have all of their wires underground. If you ask why not here, the answer you will get is that it would cost too much to put our wires underground.
But why not start? Can even the whole project cost more than the $450 billion war? What if we called the war off now and put the money we would save into putting our wires underground, where they would no longer cause the power outages that plague America every time nature cuts loose?
To pursue the Iraq war is, in part, to suggest that America has nothing better to do, nothing better on which to spend its human and financial resources. The collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, as well as the existence of much more dangerously deficient infrastructure at home, makes it clear that contention is simply not true.
Why exactly are we building bridges over the Tigris and Euphrates when our own are falling down?
Let s wake up and tackle our real priorities, at home. Now.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.