It took a tragedy to make politicians realize what we've known all along: that underfunding maintenance of the nation's infrastructure can have serious—even deadly—consequences.

In the aftermath of the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W steel-truss bridge in Minnesota, politicians are finally getting the message. For decades, infrastructure managers have pointed to research, including reports from the Federal Highway Administration's National Bridge Inventory (NBI), as iron-clad evidence that action needs to be taken sooner rather than later, and that monies for bridge improvement and maintenance need to be increased.

Only after a collapse that has, as of press time, claimed eight lives have politicians sprung into action. Governors, senators, mayors, and other officials from coast to coast have called press conferences to respond to the situation. The flurry of activity in the weeks following the collapse included:

  • Aug. 2 the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the National Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2007, which establishes a commission that will “assess the state of America's critical infrastructure.” However, hearings on the “emergency” won't start until Congress returns from recess this month, at the earliest.
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters requested that the DOT inspector general take a close look at the NBI and recommend changes to make the program more effective. Peters also charged each state to inspect its steel-truss bridges; there are 756 such structures nationwide.
  • Presidential hopeful Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-N.Y.) called for emergency funding to repair all of the country's deteriorating bridges, not just the I-35W bridge.
  • Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, like every one of his gubernatorial colleagues, called for the federal government to open up its wallets, to avoid similar tragedies from happening in his state.
  • The bridge collapse scare may have occurred too late in the appropriations process for FY 2008, which begins Oct. 1, to motivate Congress to open up money from that particular well. Emergency funding is still a possibility. The bottom line: politicians may be headline grabbers with short memories, but in this case, an angry populace loudly clamoring for infrastructure improvements might not let them forget.