tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bridge work

Two years ago this month, I covered a speech delivered by U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) in Duluth, Minn. He is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Oberstar used a 30-minute speech to tell a business audience about all the money the nation was preparing to spend on highway construction and other transportation projects. He talked about safety, but only in terms of building better roads which might lead to fewer traffic accidents. About 42,000 people per year die in auto accidents. He never mentioned bridge safety.

Bridge safety, of course, in on my mind because of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse earlier this month. Officials are moving quickly to rebuild. The cost is estimated to be about $250 million and some even say the new bridge could be in place in about a year.

Two years ago, Oberstar talked about passing legislation that would spend $286.5 billion over six years on transportation – a significant amount of money but $90 billion less than Oberstar said he would like to spend.

Oberstar said $2.8 billion of the total would be spent in Minnesota. The impact of that spending would be substantial. He said for every $1 billion spent on highway investment, the state gains 47,000 jobs.

Oberstar provided these details: $448 million of Minnesota’s allocation would be used for Interstate highway maintenance, $190 million for bridge replacement, $115 million to mitigate traffic congestion, $89 million for highway safety, and $23 million to eliminate hazards at railroad crossings, and $18 million to improve border crossings into Canada. He said there would be $1 million to buy child safety booster seats, and $500,000 in motorcycle safety grants.

“All of those initiatives are going to mean good things happening in our state,” he declared. That was two years ago.

A week ago on August 8, Oberstar introduced a program to repair the nation’s bridges. He issued a statement noting that 73,784 bridges in the country are rated “structurally deficient.”

Oberstar’s program would upgrade bridge inspection requirements and create a trust fund setting aside money for bridge repair. I don’t get the sense, however, that we will ever be able to set aside enough money to improve the condition of nearly 74,000 bridges.

Oberstar said addressing this issue will be the first order of business for his committee when Congress returns from its August recess. He will convene a hearing of the committee to look at the problem of structurally deficient bridges on Sept. 5.

Monday, August 13, 2007

It's early in the presidential campaign

The Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday opened the lengthy process of selecting nominations for the U.S. Presidential election in 2008. Unlike the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, which are likely to stay in the control of Democrats after the 2008 elections, the White House is up for grabs. Although President Bush’s popularity is low, the Democrats do not have a lock on the election. It could go either way.

The campaign begins early because the primaries are front loaded. The Iowa Caucuses are on January 14, a week after the nation’s first primary, which takes place in the District of Columbia on January 8. On February 5, the first Tuesday of February, 24 states are holding primary elections. During the month of February, 33 states will host primaries, meaning that by the first of March, much of the drama will be over. The front-runners at that point typically get their party nominations.

Despite the media’s fascination with Barack Obama, I think you have to assume that the Democratic nomination is going to go to Hillary Clinton. She’s pragmatic; she is the most organized; she knows this drill better than anyone. And she knows how to raise money. When the Democrats emerge from their national convention in Denver, I expect the ticket to be Hillary Clinton, with Obama as her vice presidential running mate.

The ticket is not so easy to predict on the Republican side. I think it is very likely we could get through the entire primary season without a clear leader emerging. Going into the national convention in St. Paul eight weeks before the election, I doubt it will be clear who the Republican candidate for president is going to be. Romney and Giuliani have positives but they also have negatives which will be difficult to get over. I don’t expect McCain to still be in the race at that point.

So if you are responsible for selecting your party’s candidate for president, do you go with one of the leaders, just because they are the ones in the race? Do you go with one of them just because they have weathered the primaries? Do you go with a nominee who you understand has absolutely no chance of beating a Clinton/Obama ticket? No. You have to go for something else. You go with a long shot, a name from completely out of the blue. My guess is, the Republicans will nominate someone who is not even in the race at this time – and I don’t mean Fred Thompson. I mean someone no one is even talking about at this point.

Last March James Carville suggested Jeb Bush would be the nominee (see my April 19 post). I don’t see that happening, but I do have a guess: Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota’s second-term governor who didn’t raise taxes but still managed to balance a state budget that was billions of dollars in the red. The Republican convention is in his back yard in 2008, and Pawlenty is head of the National Governors Association this year, giving him national visibility.

The unknown in this guess is the impact of the collapsed I-35W bridge. Will the disaster get pegged on him? Will opponents say he refused to spend the money to fix the state’s roads and bridges, resulting in this incident? That wouldn’t be fare but, of course, some people will make that argument. The question is, will it stick? A poll conducted by local television station KSTP found that 75 percent of people approve of the Governor’s handling of the situation. It will be interesting to assess the public’s sentiment a year from now.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Awesome reminder

Authorities have identified five people who died when the I-35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis two days ago; eight people are missing. Although we know the number of deaths will increase as the recovery process continues, the numbers strike me as mercifully low. That’s no consolation to family members of the victims, but I cannot help but think the numbers could have been far higher given the substantial volume of traffic on that bridge, particularly at around 6 p.m. when the disaster occurred.

I don’t know that I have ever thought twice about driving my car across a bridge. But I guess it is a big deal. It takes a lot of work to build a road -- a bridge is exponentially more involved. I have always taken roads and bridges for granted. I shouldn’t.

Two days after the disaster, I am discerning a reminder about the nature of work, particularly the kind of work that might be considered routine. The integrity of a bridge is dependent upon frequent and thorough inspections and timely maintenance, not to mention sound design and construction in the first place. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are involved. Each of them have small jobs, but if any one of them misses something, takes a short-cut, okays something that is marginal or delays repair that could be done today, it can make a difference. We saw that over the Mississippi on Tuesday.

Some jobs are so mundane that they seem unimportant. Some jobs seem disconnected from anything significant. Routine, in particular, can lull us into believing that work is really just a way to pass the time. But work is important. Most small jobs are part of something bigger. Every small part is important to the integrity of the whole, whether that is a bridge, a building, a school, a company, or something else.