MINNEAPOLIS—The tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse that left 13 dead this August brought national attention to the country's crumbling infrastructure, forcing many to question whether the nation's rapidly deteriorating roads, contaminated drinking water and groundwater, and run-down schools could perhaps be a metaphor for something.
In late 2007, the American Society of Civil Engineers conducted a full investigation into the nation's dams, highways, and public utilities, and gave the United States an overall grade of "D" for its upkeep. Unfortunately, however, the agency was unable to determine what, if anything, the country's complete and utter failure in every category it measures might mean in a larger sense.
"Everywhere you turn you see improperly maintained railways, structurally deficient bridges—not to mention billions of gallons of untreated sewage flowing directly into our groundwater," said Adam Perry, a representative for the ASCE. "Is there an underlying message here? There are so many layers, and each one is so subtle and nuanced, that I'm hesitant to make any kind of blanket statement about what this means 'for America.'"
"I think our overstretched and increasingly obsolete infrastructure might symbolize something important," Perry added. "But what?"
With more than 350,000 contaminated industrial sites requiring cleanup and more than 50 percent of the nation's inland commercial waterways unusable, the ASCE and Congress launched a joint initiative last March to determine if the dilapidated infrastructure is a metaphor for some bigger, unknown issue or, alternatively, an allegory of something possibly having to do with the future or the nature of Fate.
In early November, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reported that, while the $2.3 billion project had yet to yield any definitive answers as to what thousands of unsafe dams might represent, it had provided some "very thought-provoking" ideas.
"We're pretty sure the clogged highways are a metaphor for the ceaseless advancement of Time," said Pelosi. "And if we take our outdated and poorly maintained electrical grids to be a physical manifestation of lightning—the classic portent—then we have every reason to believe something big is about to happen."
While it is unclear what purpose the crumbling infrastructure metaphor serves when taken in context of the nation's history, neither the ASCE nor Congress have ruled out the possibility that the United States is just one big coming-of-age story.