No Comment — August 7, 2007, 6:25 am

A Bridge Too Far

hudsonriverbridge

In the past two years, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota twice vetoed legislation to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for badly needed bridge repairs–including the interstate bridge that was judged structurally deficient and that collapsed on Friday killing a still-unknown number of motorists. The Bush Administration also repeatedly cut bridge and highway improvement funds for the interstate system from the federal budget. And in light of the absolutely staggering public spending of the federal government under Bush–which has swollen to a size unmatched in the nation’s history–these expenses were a pittance.

On the Sunday talk shows the tragedy in Minneapolis was brushed off as no cause for concern by a number of commentators, all of them Administration apologists, even though the bridge collapse may reflect criminal neglect. America has been shockingly slow to invest in and maintain its own infrastructure, and bridges are a prime example. I live in New York, which probably has the poorest record of bridge maintenance in the country. This past weekend on a drive through the Hudson Valley countryside, my friends made a practice of holding their breath whenever we crossed a bridge.

I was struck by these words published in today’s London Independent:

It may be the wealthiest nation in the world but the U.S. sure has odd priorities when it comes to spending all that cash. Bridges and roads at home are allowed to crumble until the worst happens, while wars and weapons are never too expensive. Budget analysts in Congress last week reckoned the $500bn (£250bn) of taxpayers money allocated so far on wrecking and then rebuilding Iraq will double before it’s all over to $1 trillion. The war now accounts for 10 per cent of everything the government spends.

It is even more depressing when you consider the things that should have public funding lavished on them. It would be nice to see universal health care introduced, but that is too expensive and sounds like socialism. More money for the arts, education and the poor would be good too. And how about choking the torrents (albeit partly from private sources) spent on electing presidents? No one could help but be astounded by last week’s images of the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The miracle, given the timing in the middle of rush hour, was that more people did not perish. That it happened is not such a surprise, however. We now learn there are tens of thousands of bridges across the US considered “structurally deficient” and in need of repair.

You don’t have to visit this country for long to see how its transport infrastructure has deteriorated since the interstate system was built by Eisenhower in the Fifties. Never taken that pot-holed ride from JFK to Manhattan? Fasten your seatbelts for more turbulence. Or covered your ears in the screeching tunnels of the city’s antiquated subways? As for a cross-country ride on Amtrak, good luck.

It’s also striking how money is spent for wars. Money flies into the pockets of contractors with little accounting, with funds frequently advanced. But when it comes to body armor, plating for vehicles, and, even more importantly, medical care for the wounded vets, the money is missing. It points to a strange set of priorities, and it’s worse than bad judgment: it’s bad morals. War has always been associated with corruption. Toynbee, in his great study of history, makes a point of noting that the most consistent transformative property of war has been the movement of public wealth into private pockets. But America was historically better at guarding against this abuse, and in her better days, America took care of the vital investments that were and continue to be the key to her commercial success. As Thornton Wilder taught us in the Bridge of San Luis Rey, we should be hesitant to see too much in the collection of human stories associated with the collapse of a bridge. On the other hand, the tragedy in Minneapolis gives us pause and the opportunity to ask some fundamental questions about how the public chest is being spent.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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