September 24, 2013: Sometimes, life imitates art in odd ways.  Fans of the CBS Television series Under the Dome know the horrors that can occur when a small town is suddenly and inexplicably cut off from the rest of the world by a giant, largely invisible dome.  Since the series is based on a Stephen King novel, murder, sex, revenge, lies, secrets, and a good deal of melodrama follows this catastrophic isolation of fictional Chester’s Mill.  Yet in the real world, residents of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania are living through a similar experience, albeit without all the sex, blood, horror, and vivisected cattle (one unfortunate cow is in exactly the right place at the wrong time when the dome descends upon the town).

As Alana Semuels of the Los Angeles Times recently reported, the closure of three bridges in close proximity to one another has radically altered the lives, and commutes, of people living on both sides of the East Branch Perkomen Creek near Scwhenksville, Pennsylvania.  A video clip demonstrates the frustrations residents live with daily, and show how one man’s 300-yard, walkable trip from his home to a barn he is renovating has now turned into a 15-minute detour drive.

Penn Closed Bridges

The three closed bridges that have isolated several Pennsylvania communities can be seen on this Google/Save Our Bridges map, following the East Branch Perkomen Creek from left to right: the Haldeman Road/Garges Road Bridge (just above Yarrow Airfield), the Bargeys Mill Road Bridge (flagged), and the Camp Wawa Road Bridge(flagged).

While catastrophic bridge failures grab a lot of attention when they occur, the closures of bridges deemed too dangerous to cross happen largely out of sight, of little importance to anyone except those who rely on them.  Meanwhile, those bridge closures are increasing.  Mike Baker and Joan Lowry of the Associated Press report that years of tight budgets and infrastructure shortfalls have left many state and local officials “engaged in a kind of transportation triage: They fix the most important and vulnerable spans first, nurse along others and, when there’s no hope, order a shutdown.”  Worse, Baker and Lowry report,

Finding money to replace structurally deficient and fracture critical bridges in rural areas is especially difficult. Light traffic tends to make those bridges a low priority even though they may be keenly important to people in the region.

The residents of Schwenksville know this all too well, with the closure of three bridges of critical importance to their community.  These closures can be just as troubling and isolating, if not as murderously horrific, as having a giant dome seal off an entire town.  Beyond the economic costs and personal inconveniences these closures can impose, the L.A. Times reports that affected residents have significant safety concerns as well.

Pat Bush . . . said she and her husband were trapped in their house without electricity during Superstorm Sandy because trees had blocked the road one way, and the closed bridge blocked it in another. With three bridges now closed for repairs, neighbors worry that firetrucks and school buses won’t be able to reach them.

“We’re kind of trapped here,” said Royce Yoder, another neighbor. “If a fire happens, by the time the trucks can get here, we’re just a pile of rubble.”

Bush and Yoder raise a serious issue, especially for rural communities where a detour around even a single bridge can add miles to some trips.  Bridge closures sever connections between people and vital services, leading to potentially life-threatening consequences during an emergency.

If you live or work in a building with only a few roads in and out, take a moment and use LIUNA’s new Risky Crossings Map to trace the shortest routes between yourself and local emergency responders. (Since some of this information is subject to change, you can also cross-check the routes on the Save Our Bridges Map as well.)   Are there any flagged bridges along your emergency responder routes?  If, as in Schwenksville, one or more of those bridges were to be closed, how much extra time would it take for police, fire, or EMTs to reach your property?  Suddenly, abstract debates over infrastructure funding become very real and tangible if you are faced with the prospect of an ambulance having to take a significant detour on its way to you.

While Under the Dome’s fictional besieged town folks try to discern the cause of, and solution to, their sudden isolation, the real people living in and around Schwenksville know full well the cause of their partial isolation: years of neglect and under-investment.  They, and we, know the solution as well: increased investment in infrastructure maintenance, repair, and improvement.

Unfortunately, hard-core ideologues in Washington, DC and many state capitals continue to fight increased infrastructure investment and the jobs, economic development, and increased safety it would bring.  Not content either with having gutted both the length and size of the last transportation re-authorization bill, or with whittling down or killing every attempt to invest in infrastructure, these austerity extremists are now threatening, once again, to shut down all government programs if they don’t get their way, putting what little is being spent on current infrastructure projects at risk.

Sadly, such childish obstructionism has become old news in Washington, DC, and in too many state capitals.  But as the situation facing residents of Schwenksville and other areas isolated by dilapidated infrastructure demonstrates, these paralyzed, dysfunctional, counterproductive political skirmishes threaten more than sound, effective government; they threaten the safety of entire communities.

To find out more, and learn what you can do to help spur elected officials to act, visit the “Dangerous Crossings: America’s Bridges” page of LIUNA’s website.