Nick Coleman: Let's call 'em 'faith-based bridges' -- pray you get across

  • Article by: Nick Coleman
  • Star Tribune
  • September 27, 2007 - 10:59 PM

You knew the powers that be would take bold action after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge. And it didn't cost a dime!

The Minneapolis bridge was one of 70,000 "structurally deficient" bridges in the country that Americans have worried about. So government officials are going to make us stop worrying. Not by fixing bridges -- that would cost billions -- but with smoke and mirrors and baloney.

Here's their idea: Change the terms. State highway officials want engineers to stop scaring us with spooky labels. You may have thought it was the sight of cars in the water and crying people trapped under tons of concrete and twisted steel girders that scared us. Nope. It was the terminology.

So our highway departments have rolled up their sleeves and, with American know-how and a "can-do" attitude, have begun a rebranding effort to lull us back to sleep.

No more unpleasant labels such as "structurally deficient." We need something soothing.

I suggest calling them "Ready For Rapid Gravity Removal" bridges. That's what happened to our "structurally deficient" bridge. It fell down. And it killed people. Or perhaps I should say, it lowered itself into a river and some citizens were inconvenienced.

Brave leaders, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who also serves as Boss of Highway Construction, have done little more than pose for pictures while avoiding responsibility and robbing money from other overdue and underfunded highway projects to try to pony up the front money for a new I-35W bridge. They can't keep the state highway headquarters from falling down, but they are re-engineering English.

They have priorities.

One brave new wordsmith at MnDOT asked this: If car dealers call used cars "previously owned," why can't we find a term for "structurally deficient" that isn't unpleasant?

"Death Trap"? Too gloomy. "No Tax Bridge"? Too truthful.

Wait! I have it!

Instead of "structurally deficient," let's call them "faith-based bridges": Close your eyes and pray you get across.

Whatever these geniuses decide to call bridges like the one that fell into the river, I don't think they will fool anyone.

"Great idea," Larry Decheine said sarcastically on Thursday as he was watching workers dismantling the 35W bridge wreckage. "Let's not face facts. Let's just change the wording."

Decheine, a retired Mounds View city worker, came down from Blaine with his wife, Georgia, and their friends Ray and Carol Fortuna of Ham Lake to view the disaster site from the 10th Avenue Bridge.

It was their first look.

"I keep thinking about that little baby that went into the river, with her mom," Georgia was saying. "Innocent people just going about their innocent little lives. It's really sad."

I told her she had it all wrong. There is nothing to worry about. We are working on coming up with better terminology for shaky bridges.

"Yes, words are the cheap treatment," a 79-year-old retired 3M engineer named Tor Flatebo said when I explained the Word Fix to him. Flatebo and his wife, Lisa, came from Oregon -- where Flatebo has designed 30 bridges -- for a grandson's wedding, and to see the bridge.

"Whatever they call this, it's a disaster for sure," he said. "You can see that. The bridge wasn't watched properly. They are all rusting away. It never should have happened."

Nearby, an amazed Danish banker named Mikkel Gronning was staring at the wreckage with his wife, Pia, and their two children. Planning a summer visit to Minneapolis to see relatives, they were stunned by the collapse.

"We worried, 'What's going on in this place we are going?' People died here! If this happened in Denmark, the people would be angry and some politician would lose their job. This would never be forgotten. People would talk about this for 100 years."

Well, that's Old Europe for you. Those people just don't know how to solve problems.

They would never be smart enough to change the words.

Nick Coleman •

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