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Failed Bridge Exemplifies Smart Investment


Sabo bike bridge showing cable-stayed design.Another bridge in Minneapolis has failed. You probably didn’t hear about it, because: a) nobody died; and, b) it served only a small handful of people.

It’s a bike and pedestrian bridge crossing a major arterial and a light rail line. It was as much a public art project and a pander to the green factions as it is a segment of infrastructure.

Minneapolis city bridge engineers said Tuesday they found more damage to the Martin Olav Sabo bicycle and pedestrian bridge than previously reported.

Last week, a metal plate connecting a pair of cables to the bridge broke and fell. The city closed the bridge after engineers found another damaged plate nearby. Now, two more plates have been found cracked and in need repair.

…Before engineers reopened traffic under the bridge, they made sure that temporary shoring would keep the bridge from falling down if plate No. 5 failed. Hamilton said the cables support most of the bridge, but not the section that passes over the Hiawatha Light Rail tracks. However, engineers didn't want to reopen the tracks until they could detach a cable from one of the damaged plates at the top of the bridge.

"Our concern was if that cable number 8 broke, we didn't know where it would go. And we didn't know what exactly would happen to that suspension part of the bridge," Hamilton said. If it began to shift, "possibly you could affect the other part of the LRT bridge.

Predictably, righties and people like me are enjoying some schadenfreude as a hunk of soviet grandiosity threatens to crush our City Overlords’ eurofetish trainset.

Just as predictably, the lefties and the Progs are outraged at the outrage:

There's a larger issue, though: how important is design and visual impact in civic infrastructure? Shouldn't we just build purely functional roads and bridges, and leave the aesthetics to the aesthetes?

Most criticisms of investing in design come from the government-shrinking right, and after enduring eight years of George W. Bush's heinous banners, it comes as no surprise that the average Republican couldn't design his or her way out of a parking ramp (or, more to the point, a foreign occupation). But the conservative attack on public spending for aesthetics is married to the broader right-wing preference to make assumptions about human nature rather than acknowledge the reality of it.

Gee, commissar, I would be happy for merely functional roads and bridges. Instead you give us collapsing string art. The planners’ hubris about human nature remains unbounded. If only we built the right kinds of projects, man’s baser instincts would be transmuted into social utopia:

It's the function-first mentality that destroyed vibrant (if troubled) neighborhoods and replaced them with drab concrete (even more troubled) high-rises in the name of "urban renewal." It's the mentality that flies freeways and powerlines overhead rather than burying them so the neighborhoods above can be clean and quiet. It's the mentality that allows commercial culture to clutter Minnesota's highways with obnoxious billboards that block our state's natural beauty from motorists' eyes.

Oh, the horror of commerce! We must banish it!

I went to college in Boston, a city that's slowly figuring this out. City Hall Plaza is still an underpopulated grey expanse where the bustling Scollay Square used to be, but right next door is the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a model of urban revitalization that showed the country how well an outdoor shopping mall, thoughtfully integrated into a historic neighborhood, could work. The Twin Cities weren't the only cities that failed to heed its lessons as we bulldozed city blocks to build beached whales like Block E, Spruce Tree Centre, and Calhoun Square.

As I have remarked, the old buildings came down because they were no longer good buildings. That the new buildings are sometimes often ugly is an accurate reflection on human nature. We like art, sure, but we like a lot of other stuff more.

Boston invested again—on record scale—in urban livability by burying its once-elevated Central Artery underground in the mammoth public-works project known as "the Big Dig." Now, what used to be a no-man's-land between downtown and the North End is an open greenspace. We're not about to bury the I-94/394 interchange (if only!), but we did very right by the new 35W bridge, a striking structure that beautifies rather than blights the riverfront.

It wasn’t an investment, it was an expense to create urban luxury goods (greenspace). Not to mention, the Big Dig kills people.

Good design—design that's safe, attractive, and created with actual human beings in mind—is a smart investment.

Smart investments don’t fall on peoples’ heads.

Which human beings are we to keep in mind? The ones in the politburo and on the planning committee, or the ones who would rather have an easier ride to work and pay less in taxes?

The smart money bets against the planners.


Architecture often embodies the soul of a society.  When we were deeply religious, we got grand cathedrals.  As we shifted our focus to policy, government and the rule of law, we got grand and beautiful government buildings.  As we became more enthralled with commerce, we got basic, utilitarian office complexes.

There is nothing great in any of these things.  Each has a use and value related to what that particular society chose to spend its money on.

Central planning (even the limited type we have here in the US) will dictate what we MUST have, not what we prefer to have.  If the planners want art and architecture, that is what we shall have regardless of its value or safety.

Actually, that is incorrect.  Even the most utilitarian of projects must make a grand gesture of some sort - so we will have art even if it sucks, because the planners have a point they want to make.

If society wants art and architecture and grand buildings, it should be willing to tolerate and even encourage the accumulation of personal fortunes.

If architecture is left to a vote, the majority would seldom pay for luxuries. They would vote for a tax to make somebody else pay for what they want, and install planners with the proper tastes to deliver the goods. But even the political process that planners exploit is tainted. Too many cooks in the kitchen, or too many constituencies to satisfy.

The really cool stuff was built using the wealth of individual patrons who didn’t have to compromise. I count the church(es) as patrons, but it does get fuzzy. At least church committees all want to praise the same version of God.