Over the weekend, people gathered from New York and Vermont to celebrate the completion of the new Lake Champlain Bridge, from Crown Point to Addison.
The hero of the day was bridge designer and world-renowned architect Ted Zoli, who was born in Schroon Lake and grew up in Glens Falls. (Corrected)
When Zoli took to the microphone Saturday morning, his talk took an unexpected turn.
Rather than stick to the usual bromides and back-patting, he waded directly into one of the big debates of our time, over the size and shape of government.
“This is made with your money,” Zoli said, gesturing back at the new span.
“I think some people are disappointed about paying taxes and if you see what your taxes do and you can see a reason for your taxes and you’re engaged with the way that money is spent, I think you can have great public works.”
Zoli went on to talk about the widespread hostility that many Americans feel toward the very idea of government, acknowledging that “in many circumstances we’re disappointed about what government can achieve.”
And of course, there are reasons for much of that dissatisfaction. Government has a long history of over-reaching, dipping too deeply into people’s wallets and not producing sufficient benefits.
But as Zoli pointed out, that’s only one slice of the story. In many instances, as with the Lake Champlain Bridge — which came with a price tag of $75.5 million — government agencies are responsive to the public’s needs and demands.
More responsive, I think it’s safe to say, than many other valuable institutions in our society, from churches to corporations.
Of course, much of the work public employees do is far less visible and tangible than a bridge, but no less valuable or essential.
The vast majority of our tax dollars go productively toward insuring the welfare of children, keeping senior citizens healthy, protecting our borders, and building the vast infrastructure required by a modern, prosperous society.
The Lake Champlain Bridge also offers an illustration of what happens when governments stop spending the money necessary to keep up basic infrastructure.
Many locals in the Crown Point region remember when a bridge toll once went to pay for long-term maintenance for the old bridge. The tolls were canceled, state dollars were diverted to other things, and the old span fell into shabby disrepair.
Will the history of this span be different? Will it be maintained? “This is your bridge and I hope it keeps you in good stead and lasts you for many generations,” Zoli said.
But the truth is, it’s really up to us. This is our government, just as much as this is our bridge.
Through the heated and often ideological debates of this election year, we will decide what shape that government takes, what resources it will have, what services we will expect it to provide.
Our beautiful new bridge is a great symbol of why this debate is so important.