The McBride Viaduct: a perfect controversy for Erie

An unceremonious end to the most Erie controversy of all-time:

With this ruling, Erie’s McBride Viaduct, which is probably just another decade of neglect away from falling down on its own anyway, will now be demolished. We need to talk about this.

I happen to know a little bit about bridges, and this one was simple: concrete slab columns and decking with steel rebar, a pedestrian walkway on the side. I used to drive over this unremarkable piece of infrastructure on the way to grandma’s house. I probably don’t need to explain what happened next, but here goes anyway:

In keeping with our country’s long history of pointing fingers at each other over who should be responsible for maintaining the country our grandparents happily pooled their resources (read: tax dollars) together to build, we neglected this thing.

We neglected it until approximately 2005, when the Bayfront Connector highway was constructed a mere 800 ft. from the old bridge. I’m going to take a second to explain why that was built. Erie’s population had been declining for decades by this time but they hadn’t gone far – Erie County’s population was holding steady – they were moving to the suburbs. So it made sense to connect these new suburbanites to the city where the jobs were still located.

Now, my memory might not be perfect, but I don’t remember a lot of howling when state and federal dollars were building the new highway. Ten years passed. Meanwhile, the writing was on the wall for the old neighborhood bridge the whole time. In fact right around this time, its load rating was downgraded.

Then, because this is Erie, something truly insane happened. Our people emotionally attached themselves to the crumbling bridge. They picketed; they formed a group and held regular meetings; they went on TV. “Save the bridge!” signs were all over the east side. You could, I kid you not, stand on top of the thing and look through literal holes in the concrete to the earth below by then and there was now a redundant bridge along a brand new highway 800 ft. to the west. None of it mattered. The fires of passion were burning too hot.

Now, I’m going to attempt to put myself in the shoes of these folks (like any human being should do if you’re actually trying to resolve a conflict instead of just shouting). What if I lived there? There’s a Walmart across from the old bridge, maybe I don’t have a car, and I have to walk a quarter mile longer with my groceries. That sucks! Undeniably, that sucks. Add to it that the east side was the Erie manufacturing Mecca for decades but now that’s all gone and the houses and streets are crumbling. The crime is rising over here and it seems to be a hotspot for Erie’s burgeoning immigrant community who really have enough roadblocks in front of them already as they try to rebuild their lives in a strange land. No one seems to have any plan or care for how to provide some opportunity over here. I can sort of see how you’d be bent to see one more thing fall by the wayside.

Still, for the life of me, this bridge seems like an awfully strange place to make your stand. Instead, let me propose something more practical that I’m hoping we can all get behind: going forward, let’s take care of our existing stuff before it rots. It’s not only rotting in Idiotville. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave American infrastructure a D+ in 2017. I really hope that was the spirit behind all the rage toward saving that decrepit old bridge, anyway.

I hope it was a realization that a D+ won’t magically turn into an A. That the last time our country was really serious about taking care of infrastructure was the Great Depression, which is exactly when they built the McBride Viaduct. We don’t need to be known as the Rust Belt forever. You want things like community bridges and functional sewers and God forbid, maybe some high speed rail or a nice airport? Congratulations, you’re a liberal. Because the magic that makes all these things appear are taxes.

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