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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Deadly Infrastructure

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If we aren’t going to talk about the dangerous consequences of deteriorating infrastructure when there is a fatal accident, when are we going to talk about it?

The least important fact about the tragic accident that killed a 15-year-old boy on his way to Summerfest is that it comes at a politically inconvenient time for Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who is running for governor.

Jared Kellner was crushed when a 27,000pound slab of concrete fell from the outside of a county parking garage built under O’Donnell Park on Milwaukee’s lakefront.

The most important concern, of course, is why 13.5 tons of decorative concrete on the exterior of a county structure were so unstable as to fall onto people on the first day of Summerfest.

Questions immediately were raised—as they should be—about whether more than $200 million in deferred maintenance in Milwaukee County parks may have contributed to unsafe conditions.

It is no secret that infrastructure all over America has been neglected for years as politicians in both major parties have put cutting taxes above most other public concerns.

Walker simply represents a more extreme version of that philosophy. The enormous deferral in county park and building maintenance seemed to have no political consequences for him when all it meant was trashy public buildings and deterioration of one of the nation’s premier park systems.

It’s difficult to rally the public against gradual decline of our quality of life, but a tragedy is a shock to the system. Nobody gets excited about our deteriorating roads and bridges, either, until a bridge collapse takes human lives.

Some reporters immediately focused on a consultants’ report completed late last year warning county officials that the O’Donnell parking garage needed nearly $600,000 in repairs for multiple problems, including cracking walls.

Walker appeared at a press conference with Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and other county officials to announce an investigation into the cause of the accident.

Curiously, Clarke shut down reporters from questioning Walker about the condition of the parking garage even though Walker later released a report claiming nearly all the flaws identified in the consultants’ report had been corrected.

The press conference raised other questions. Clarke appeared to be taking charge of the investigation into the accident along with investigators from the district attorney’s office looking into whether any crimes were committed.

But Clarke has no expertise in structural engineering. Most citizens would find an independent investigation by outside experts much more credible than one by county officials who themselves ultimately could be held liable.

Shifting the Blame

One of the most blatant attempts at blameshifting by Walker and other county officials was the announcement that the investigation would focus on the original design and installation of the decorative concrete panels on the parking garage nearly two decades ago.

In other words, maybe it was Tom Ament’s fault.

After eight years as county executive, Walker still tries to blame the financial shambles of Milwaukee County under his administration on his predecessor every chance he gets.

Now Walker seems to be suggesting that deferred maintenance and laying off county engineers and inspectors had absolutely nothing to do with 27,000 pounds of concrete falling off a county structure, killing a highschool student and injuring two others.

Let’s see if we can duck any responsibility and pin it on somebody else, even if we have to go back to 1991. This is from one of those conservatives who always lecture people without any resources about taking responsibility for their actions.

The fact is there hasn’t been a complete assessment of the safety of the O’Donnell Park garage since 2004, according to county officials.

Of course, Walker’s political opponents are only too happy to see the possibility of Walker’s tax-cutting chickens coming home to roost at a critical time in the governor’s race.

One of those was former Congressman Mark Neumann, Walker’s Republican primary opponent, who immediately released a statement calling for a full safety review of deteriorating structures in Milwaukee County.

What makes Neumann’s opportunism so hypocritical is that Neumann shares Walker’s right-wing ideology that government should spend as little as possible to reduce taxes for current voters.

Walker and Neumann even oppose government spending to create jobs and restore the economy, claiming they want to protect our poor grandchildren from the onerous burden of government deficits that will destroy their futures.

Actually, government deficits always grow during poor economic times and shrink when the economy recovers and people go back to work and have money to spend.

What really burdens our grandchildren is hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance of our public infrastructure put off by conservative politicians running for election.


Those costs grow even more enormous in the future and leave us with a dangerously deteriorating infrastructure that can have tragic consequences when it falls down around us.

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