A national feeling of shock after Thursday's bridge collapse on the Mississippi has by now turned to empathy for the families of those killed or missing, as well as the dozens injured. That empathy should not be forgotten. Many of the families will likely lead Americans to demand more diligence in fixing the shared systems of everyday life.
Insisting that bridges, roads, tunnels, and dams be fixed, however, isn't the usual behavior of voters. Take, for instance, the slap on the back that many people give to lawmakers for winning money for a local road or other public convenience. New is nice. But maintenance is necessary.
Government leaders don't seek brass plaques on bridges that say, "Cracks found and fixed, thanks to Mr. Joe Politician." They know they will receive more credit for bringing home new public amenities than for renewing worn ones.
Congress has become especially prone to the backroom horse-trading that allows individual members to slip in spending earmarks for pet projects in a highway-funding bill. Those earmarks have grown in the past 25 years to nearly 10 percent of the federal highway budget, crowding out money for maintenance. Civil engineers and architects, too, much prefer to work on the new rather than the old.
But reform doesn't really start with them. Something's amiss among voters for not demanding more of public servants in maintaining basic utilities and for not backing those few political candidates who do champion the mundane tasks of keeping up structures.
The finger-pointing that inevitably occurs after a tragedy like the I-35 bridge collapse most often needs to turn the other way. The fault lies as much with voters as it did with the bridge. All the outrage at government neglect in design or repair of structures is really a reflection of citizen fatigue with the chore of watchdogging officials.
Citizens know they can usually get a pothole fixed by calling city hall. But what's their role in state and federal highways, dams, underground pipes, and other giant structures? Just "leave it to the experts" and the media? That didn't work in last week's bridge tragedy.
After the Katrina and Rita hurricanes, it took months before Gulf residents could figure out from which level of government to demand better protection – local, state, or federal.
And when the American Society of Civil Engineers reported in 2005 that it would cost $1.6 trillion to fix the nation's infrastructure, who should follow up with legislators or political candidates to make sure that money is found and spent? The immensity of the task is daunting, requiring better mobilization of citizens.
It's taken two decades for the Federal Highway Administration to come up with new rules on bridge design, due out in October. Where was public pressure to speed up the process and make up for the faulty designs of the 1950s and 1960s that relied too easily on the kind of welds found fractured in the I-35 bridge (assuming that was the cause of the break-up)?
Asking questions about citizen resolve for holding leaders accountable can arise from that momentary compassion toward families of victims in such disasters.
The families won't forget, and neither should we.