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Keeping The Next Bridge Collapse Secret

In the name of national security we are willing to jeopardize so much: national unity, national ideals, even, well, national security.

Take the case of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, a warning sign to all that a country that built up its road system in the 1950s and 60s is due for a major infrastructure overhaul. The natural immediate reaction after the collapse was for inspectors across the land to take a closer look at their bridges--and for citizens to come in behind those inspectors to check on what's being declared safe and what's being swept under the carpet.

But then national security came into play, and, as it does all too often these days, trumped common sense.

The feds, ever vigilant for new ways to take public information out of reach of the public, issued a Homeland Security alert encouraging the states to withhold bridge inspection reports because evildoers could use them to identify weaknesses in the infrastructure that they could then use to do their evil.

Excuse me, but those evildoers could save themselves a whole lot of trouble and just drive over to some of those bridges and see the rust and the holes and the other plain-as-day signs of neglected maintenance. Isn't it vastly more important for the public--independent engineers, road safety advocates, news reporters, regular citizens who might want to check on the safety of their daily commutes--to be able to do its duty to act as a check on government?

Virginia's Department of Transportation dutifully announced its effort to recheck the state's bridges, but when it came to sharing the results with the public--an ordinary and routine part of open government--suddenly all we were permitted to know was when inspections had occurred and how the inspectors had scored a particular bridge. (Here's the list for northern Virginia.) This is the moral equivalent of name, rank and serial number.

A similar problem in Florida led state legislators there to insist on public release of more detailed information, and a compromise reached last month has made it possible for citizens to get a more straightforward accounting of how their bridges are doing, with summaries of inspections posted on the state's web site and full reports available to those who request them.

Fear of attack is no reason to toss out our ideals or our traditions; a government that retreats to secrecy is one that cannot operate either efficiently or with the public's trust.

By Marc Fisher |  September 6, 2007; 7:35 AM ET
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The real lesson of 9/11 is that when the people are made fearful enough, government and the bureaucrats who run it will come to declare everything an issue of "national security." So we are all just supposed to shut up and die like patriots as our highway and over water bridges buckle in order for the terrorists not to win?

Posted by: Jack | September 6, 2007 8:06 AM

A couple things:

1) Fisher's only half right about the predictable knee-jerk response to a tragedy like what happened in Minnesota. True, one of the first reactions is for everyone to do a safety inspection blitz. But the other first reaction are immediate calls for more infrastructure funding without doing any homework as to whether present funding is being wasted or bureaucratically diverted. The ole standby of throwing money at the problem is as old as the hills, and while more money may indeed be needed, it hardly qualifies as a well thought out solution, particularly given present levels of government waste.

2) Fisher's last comment about secrecy undermining the trustworthiness of government is probably valid. But as a journalist, he should know that the same lesson applies to his profession too. Until the press is far more forthcoming about how it does its business, and what kinds of biases, ideological and otherwise, impact the job they do, they are in no position to lecture anyone else about secrecy, public denials, and obfuscation.

Posted by: vajent | September 6, 2007 9:53 AM

If the DC madam can claim National Security then anyone can claim it for whatever reason.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 6, 2007 10:13 AM

That's it! I was checking out the infrastructure. Yeah! That's the ticket!

Posted by: Larry Craig | September 6, 2007 10:30 AM

Someone's checking out the infrastructure of the DC madam?

Posted by: Huh? | September 6, 2007 11:20 AM

Alright, this is fun and worth complaining about, but let's look at the results. VDOT gave us enough information already to know that they have determined the Courthouse Blvd bridge over Arlington Blvd/Route 50 and the Washington Blvd bridge over Columbia Pike to be structurally deficient. How much more detail do you need to see before you're motivated to want those bridges fixed? The bridge in Minneapolis had been inspected too, the bureaucrats knew there was a potential problem, but the great thing is -- no one cared
It's much more important to build a new soccer field in Arlington. A new soccer field will make the front page of the Metro section and in turn will mean a few hundred more votes in November. I don't the Post will ever run stories about how another year's gone by without any area bridges collapsing and how we should all thank the county board and the governor and Congress for keeping us safe again.

Posted by: athea | September 6, 2007 11:46 AM

How about we hire illegal immigrants to hold the bridges up so they don't collapse?

Posted by: Stick | September 6, 2007 12:57 PM

Didn't Ike build the Interstate Highway System as a defense project? The Minneapolis Bridge is Interstate, but most of those VA structures aren't. They are merely a hazard to life and limb and a political embarrassment.

Posted by: Mike Licht | September 6, 2007 3:49 PM

I just wish the illegals we hire to hold up our bridges would pay for their health care after it falls on em. Worker's Comp cover something like that? Any labor laws being broken? Not like Bush would enforce the law no-how. Good idea, lets get the illegals to hold up our bridges. At least in some small way they are contributing to our society. Damn good idea Stick.

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