Blogs > Liberty and Power > Drawing the Wrong Lessons from the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

Aug 11, 2007 12:54 am

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse

As they did with Katrina, the politicians and public have taken it for granted that the Minneapolis bridge collapse illustrates the need for bigger government. In record speed, Governor Tim Pawlenty recanted his previous opposition to a gas tax increase for bridge and road repears. Few have even considered that the collapse might illustrate the dangers of relying too much, not too little, on governments for infrastructure.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the citizens of Nevada, who faced an even more daunting infrastructure crisis, came to a different conclusion. An example was the Placerville State Road, a government-maintained mountain artery on the section of the Overland Trail. It"was literally lined with brown-down stages, wagons, and carts, presenting every variety of aspect, from the general smash-up to the ordinary capsize. Wheels had taken rectangular cuts to the bottom, broken tongues projected from the mud; loads of dry goods and whiskey barrels lay wallowing in the general wreck of matter; stout beams cut from the roadside were scattered here and there, having served in vain efforts to extricate the wagons from the oozing mire."

Instead of assuming that these problems proved the need for more government, Nevada's politicians and voters turned to the private sector. They granted dozens of charters to companies and individuals to construct and maintain roads. Between the 1850s and 1880s, local entrepreneurs financed, built, and operated more than one hundred toll roads and bridges. This represented an enormous amount of activity in an area with so few people.

While some grumbled about paying tolls, even the sternest critics acknowledged that privatization brought dramatic improvements in quality. Referring to the Placerville Road, one observer commented that"a narrow, dangerous, wretched trail [which] was scarcely fit for the passage of sure-footed pack-mules" had been transformed into"a broad, compact, well-graded highway, which might be fairly be likened to an old Roman road."

For more on the rise and fall of Nevada's toll roads and bridges, see my article (co-authored with Linda Royster Beito), "Rival Road Builders: Private Toll Roads in Nevada, 1852-1880," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 41 (Summer 1998), 71-91.

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David T. Beito - 8/15/2007

Wow....You've given me a lost to consider here. I'm under a looming deadline right now but promise to get back to this and reply.

Andrew D. Todd - 8/13/2007

Well, the railroads are private entities, and they have their share of assorted accidents and disasters. Of course, the railroads mostly handle freight rather than passengers, so most of their disasters are covered only in the trade press. However, every now and then they have a chemical spill, usually in a small town in North Carolina or South Dakota, with as many as a dozen people killed. I suppose the railroads' "perfect storm" would be if they were ever to have a bad spill in Chicago. Chicago is the grand intersection of the national railroad network, and a number of the through tracks run through the densely populated area.

Private businessmen do not write off equipment or plant for no better reason than that it is indefinitely hazardous. The highway system is, broadly speaking, in at least as good shape as the railroads. The usual railroader's complaint is that the highwaymen have all this tax money to play with, and are able to spend, spend, and spend. They build multi-lane freeways across places like Montana, where there is little traffic.

I don't know if you heard about the Sacramento Trestle Fire back in March. Apparently, the wood trestle was sufficiently heavily creosoted, as a result of years and years of repainting, that it lit off more or less along its entire length before the fire could be contained. At any rate, the Union Pacific Railroad managed to put up a new concrete deck bridge in only two weeks, and I don't imagine they did it by any extraordinary level of efficiency. I suppose this means that the bridge components have become sufficiently standardized that they could, in effect, put up a kind of Bailey Bridge, out of components diverted from some other project(s). Of course, this is for a railroad bridge. Highway bridges would be a more difficult proposition because you have a much wider range of grades, curvatures, and load limits to account for.

I think the basic underlying problem is that large sectors of ground transportation are in eclipse. No one is building new improved routes, and tearing down the old ones because they are in the way. In most cities, the outermost ring roads are considerably newer than the downtown routes, but in another ten years, _they_ will start to go critical.

Incidentally, an authentic roman road involved about the same order of labor as building a railroad, which is why authentic roman roads have managed to survive two thousand years. I am pretty sure that the Placerville Road was not built to that standard. Now, of course, Charles Dickens had some fun with American commercial-civic boosterism in Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, based on surviving photographs and a contemporary account, the Placerville Road seems to have been little more than what we would call a dirt road.

Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent: A Summer's Journey to the Rocky Mountains, the Mormons, and the Pacific..., 1865, Hurd & Houghton. p. 267;pg=PA267&lpg=PA267&dq=%22placerville+road%22+history+construction&source=web&ots=dDIhFQe6mJ&sig=ToqIco0VZmEU7wMiyWayXyKWpsc

Common Sense - 8/13/2007

Let's be thankful the bridge did not collapse due to persons "linked" to Iran. A different pretext for war will have to be devised. Think, Cheney, think!