Four years ago this week, the eight-lane, 1,907-foot-long I-35W highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis experienced a catastrophic failure in the main span of the deck truss, with more than 100 vehicles on the 1,000-foot span when it collapsed.
Four years ago, the I-35W highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Many hoped it would lead to a major change in infrastructure funding. (Photo from Minnesota DOT)
Four years ago, the I-35W highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Many hoped it would lead to a major change in infrastructure funding. (Photo from Minnesota DOT)

The tragedy killed 13 people and injured 145. Today, looking at the images, it brings back the gut-clenching memory of watching the TV coverage, like something out of a 1970s horror movie, imagining the 100-foot plunge into the 15-foot-deep water below.

The silver lining, however, was that we believed this would bring much-needed national attention to the sorry state of our nation's highways and bridges, and prompt a serious discussion on how to find the funding to fix them, before another such tragedy occurred. After all, the highway spending bill was due to expire just a year later.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, predicted, "This period ahead is the most perilous for surface transportation that I've seen in 43 years. Rising fuel prices, a slowing national economy, congestion on a scale that exceeds that of the immediate pre-Interstate years, put us at the most critical juncture in the history of surface transportation. The challenge is huge. We have to have a transformational program."

Here we are, four years later. The SAFETEA-LU highway program, which was supposed to expire in 2009, has been extended seven times and is now set to expire next month. Not only do we not have a "transformational program," but the proposal now in the House would by some estimates amount to a 36% cut in transportation spending.

The problem? Survey after survey shows Americans are not willing to foot the bill to take care of the highways they depend on to get to work, the grocery store, to Grandma's. The highways trucks depend on so there's food on the shelves at that grocery store.

Just ask Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. The group had worked out a deal with the governor to ask for an increase in the state diesel tax to pay for highway improvements. But the plan came to a screeching halt when it became obvious it would never get the votes needed to pass. Four polls showed about 60% opposition - even after respondents were given a list of reasons the increase would be good for Arkansas.

"There's no question it's a public mood," Kidd told Washington Editor Oliver Patton. "One could say it's this Tea Party anti-tax conservative movement that seems to be permeating throughout the South or the country, that we just don't want to pay any more taxes for any reason."

Maybe these voters should read "The State of the Union's Roads," a recent investigative report by Car & Driver, which does an excellent job of laying out the problems. A few highlights:

* About 5% of interstate bridges are structurally deficient.

* The Interstates were designed to last 20 or 30 years, but now some areas are pushing 50 and handling far more traffic than their planners anticipated.

* The Highway Trust Fund is running out of money. Fuel taxes are not indexed to inflation, and more fuel-efficient vehicles mean less fuel purchased.

* In 2008, a government-appointed blue-ribbon panel said the U.S. needs to invest $130 billion annually to maintain the current level of Interstate performance. That's roughly $100 billion more than transportation outlays that year.

In fact, I really can't say it any better than Car & Driver's Zach Rosenberg: "We as a nation must make difficult, unpopular decisions about what to build, what to keep, and what to let turn to dust."

And how much we're willing to pay, from our pockets or in lost lives like those in Minneapolis four years ago.