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Originally published May 25, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified May 29, 2013 at 4:26 PM

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Maybe now we’ll pay attention to ailing bridges

There’s nothing good about a bridge collapse. Only this one might snap us out of our recession-induced political torpor.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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That bridge collapse may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to us.

For years, tedious civil engineers have chided that a “wake-up call” is imminent. The red phone finally rang, yet somehow, miraculously, nobody died or was seriously injured, even though an I-5 span plummeted into the water at rush hour.

It happened only two days after local civil engineers put out one of their seasonally ignored reports about the crumbling state of our infrastructure. We have 366 bridges that are structurally deficient, the report warned. A third of all bridges — more than 2,800 around the state — have aged past their 50-year design lives.

“This report should serve as a wake-up call,” a state legislator proclaimed in the news release, knowing full well that was about as likely as Tim Eyman coming out in favor of a tax increase.

Well, I don’t know if the spectacle of an I-5 bridge lying in the Skagit River will change all that. But it should. This bridge was old and obsolete, but it wasn’t even one of the 366 considered the most infirm. Apparently a truck clipping one of the trusses was all it took to bring it down.

“Washingtonians need to realize that our ailing infrastructure hurts our wallets and our livelihoods,” the head of the boring Seattle office of the American Society of Civil Engineers boringly said last Tuesday in releasing the boring report.

Not so boring by Thursday night!

In any case, this visceral reminder that we have a big backlog of basic government maintenance needs comes at what ought to be a major transition point in our politics. Since the economic collapse of 2008, we have been hunkered down in, at best, a holding pattern. It’s been a slog of resetting, retrenching, waiting for better times.

Personally, I felt that was the wise course. Sometimes Tim Eyman is right: A recession is just not the time to be raising taxes, even if there are good uses of the money.

But here’s the other thing that’s been ignored right along with the civil-engineer reports. The recession is over. We can’t declare total victory, but we are winning. Especially around here.

Did you see the news last week that the unemployment rate in King County has fallen to 4.4 percent? Probably not, because this news was buried. The state’s rate has also fallen, to 6.5 percent (7 percent seasonally adjusted). These are huge gains of 3 to 5 percentage points from 2010, when joblessness peaked.

A force that has dominated national politics is the federal deficit. It supposedly prompted the rise of the tea party. But the deficit, too, is suddenly plummeting. It will be an issue in the coming decades, due to the boomers retiring. But an improving economy, small tax increases and trims to spending have made it much less of an immediate worry than it was even six months ago.

The era of lean times is ending. But politics hasn’t caught on. The state is in special session due to a stale “no taxes” vow in the state Senate. Likewise, the Congress continues to be bogged down in deficit-crisis politics that, while important, has lost its immediate punch.

My point is that, for the first time in years, we can afford to drop some money on our ailing roads and bridges. Ditto the schools (another ignored report came out last week from the U.S. Census, noting that for the first time in 40 years, spending on American public schools actually declined.)

The schools report is just like the civil-engineers report: packed with feel-bad tedium. It shows that in Washington we spend $9,500 per child on education, 10 percent below the national average. That’s also $4,500 less per kid than Massachusetts, and an astonishing $9,600 less per kid than New York.

Folks, we are not this cheap. Are we? Bridges crumbling, schools stagnating — that’s not Washington state.

Only we got a glimpse of it last week in Mount Vernon. The economic recession is ending. Time to snap out of the political one.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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