The politics of a North Country bridge

Ted Zoli photographed Saturday (Photograph: Mark Kurtz)

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.

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8 Comments on “The politics of a North Country bridge”

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  1. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Born in Crown Point? Is that a typo?

  2. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    I found several links about Zoli growing up in Glens Falls, nothing specific about being born in Crown Point. I recall hearing or reading it before, but it may have been NCPR.
    Strange it was not mentioned more, if true.

    Zoli’s point, and Brian’s elaboration on it are excellent. Government can, of course create jobs (though best in cooperation with the private sector).
    The fact that millions of Americans seem not to believe this, and yet can still feed themselves, drive cars, and even hold down jobs, is a never-ceasing source of amazement to me.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, this is an example of “your” tax dollars at work and I applaud it even though I personally will probably never use it.
    It is so easy to fall into the “everything is about me” attitude where if the tax dollars spent don’t directly benefit the “me” the me’s of the world are against it.
    You see this happening all the time, most recently when it comes to education and health care.

  4. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    FWI, I also read that Zoli received a MacArthur (“genius” ) award. My “copy-paste” function has gone AWOL, but it was in several articles I googled.

  5. Brian Mann says:

    Yeah, sorry – Zoli was born in Schroon Lake, not Crown Point. I had Crown Point on the brain…

    –Brian, NCPR

  6. Rex Trobridge says:

    I’m delighted that the new Lake Champlain bridge was rebuilt with the unexpected and atypical cooperation and expedition it demonstrated. The real story here, however, is the same as we see in our deteriorating and failing infrastructure throughout the state and country. By all accounts, the original bridge, as critical as it was to the regional population and economy, failed because it hadn’t been properly maintained. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar stories around the state and country where critical infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate to dangerous levels because politicians don’t have the will to spend the money in the public operating budgets necessary for their maintenance. Politicians are not rewarded for passing operating budgets providing for critical maintenance, but they are rewarded with press releases, personal appearances and photo ops when cutting the ribbons on a whole host of new projects that are bonded, and come out of a capital budget where we incur far more long-term debt that is vastly more expensive over the long haul than properly maintaining our critical infrastructure. And that debt service is far more easily buried in the annual state and public authority budgets with far less accountability than had it been properly incorporated in operating budgets. How many politicians were present for the congratulatory back-slapping, hand shakes and photo ops at the bridge opening celebration? And where were they over the many years when State budgets were approved that utterly failed to provide necessary funds to maintain the old bridge? Will things change? I seriously doubt it. I’m glad they built the bridge – they did a great job. But will they maintain it? Unlikely!

  7. Anita says:

    I used to work for a county highway department, which is a place that knows a LOT about bridges. What I learned there is that the life of a bridge is about the same as the life of a person. Once a bridge becomes old, which can be as soon as 50 years, its life cannot be prolonged without very high costs. Another factor that profoundly affects maintenance costs is the bridge’s design. There have been lots of ideas over the years (such as steel mesh instead of pavement) but that turned out to increase maintenance problems and costs over time, and to shorten bridge life.

    There is a strong possibility that replacement of the old span (80 years old when closed in 2009, which is truly old for a bridge) was more cost effective than attempting to repair the old bridge. I’m willing to bet that the new bridge is better designed and safer than the old one – and that I won’t live long enough to collect or pay out on that bet.

  8. Walker says:

    “Once a bridge becomes old, which can be as soon as 50 years, its life cannot be prolonged without very high costs.”

    Probably true, but I’d wager that a bridge doesn’t have to enter old age at fifty, any more than a person does. If it’s well designed to begin with and well maintained over the course of its life, I have trouble believing that it isn’t cheaper and better to keep it than to destroy and replace it. The Brooklyn Bridge is 129 years old, the Bear Mountain Bridge is 88, and the George Washington Bridge is 81 years old.

    The problem is, the states let it deteriorate to the point where it became cheaper to replace it. When you consider the cost of demolition, and the fact that replacement means living without a bridge for an extended period, keeping up with proper bridge maintenance makes more sense unless the bridge is badly designed.

    The Crown Point Bridge was extensively rehabilitated in 1991, work that included repairing of the bridge piers. You have to wonder how well that work was done, and how well it was maintained afterwards.

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