Who will be the next to die because our cities spend money on sports stadiums instead of basic infrastructure?
Two years ago, my former college town, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, was the site of thirteen needless fatalities when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed. The tragedy occurred the same month that ground was broken on a $500 million stadium. Now, a mere 10-minute walk from my home, two Washington, D.C., Metro trains collided, killing nine and sending more than 75 to the hospital.
I spent most of that evening on the phone, either assuring people that my family was safe or checking on friends to make sure no one was in the hospital or worse. The parents of my little girl's friends were secure, although several had been on the trains involved. The relief was palpable, even physical. But then the stories started to be released in small doses, and relief turned to horror.
There were the families of the dead on television: the inconsolable loved ones of train operator Jeanice McMillan and eight others. A teacher, a young mother, a retired National Guard major general, a woman who cleaned office buildings while raising six children - all gone.
Then there are victims like 14-year-old Lanice Beasley. The tendons in her legs were severed. While she waited for rescue, Lanice comforted a severely injured woman who ultimately perished right next to her on the ground.
My shock became anger as it became clear that none of these people had to die, that no one had to be hurt. The wreckage by my house is not an accident site. It is a crime scene. And it happened for one reason: the twisted policies of the underfunded Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The WMATA gets no dedicated federal funds despite the fact that it serves thousands of federal workers. In fact, it has no dedicated source of funds at all, depending on fares and ads for three-fifths of its budget.
The rest is a pittance from the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, creating an underfunded, overstretched system called by the Brookings Institution "deficits by design."
All the dirty laundry that Metro riders catch whiffs of on their daily commutes is now in plain view. Employees have told The Washington Post that the first two cars of the striking train were two months overdue for maintenance on "braking components." In addition, the trains involved in the collision were recommended to be taken off the tracks altogether or significantly retrofitted back in 2006.
The Post also reported that Deborah Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board said, "They have not been able to do that and our recommendation was not addressed. So, it has been an unacceptable status." Even worse, we now know that Jeanice McMillan probably pressed the emergency brake and it did not respond.
The Metro has now become our broken levee: an utterly preventable tragedy, if only people in government had the will to do the public good. And as in New Orleans, whose Superdome sucked up public money better spent on flood control, if publicly funded stadiums hadn't become a substitute for urban policy, we wouldn't be mourning today.
The boondoggle of government-funded stadiums is just one example from a society that gives handouts to billionaires at the expense of ordinary citizens' needs.
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty should be crawling under a rock. Instead Mr. Fenty sees this crisis, according to reports, as his Giuliani moment, an opportunity for him to be some sort kind of strongman visionary in the wake of tragedy.
Spare us your ambition, Mr. Mayor. Instead, explain how we are going to get Metro funded. And while you are at it, explain why the District is on the hook for a $700 million ballpark, where the city's last-place team toils in front of its dozen or so biggest fans. Why, under your watch, does the D.C. government own skyboxes at all sporting venues? Why are you in discussion for more stadium spending - on soccer, hoops and the mother of all stadium deals, the possible return of the Washington Redskins from suburban Maryland to the District?
Mr. Fenty should by no means be the only political leader to feel the heat. The state governments in Maryland and Virginia should also be doing a perp walk. But the WMATA is the D.C.-area Metro. If Mr. Fenty wants to own this crisis, he needs to own his own accountability.
This is a question of priorities. A majority of D.C.-area residents opposed the public funding of the stadiums. These are the priorities of power, and they must be opposed at all costs. The advice of peace activist Sister Joan Chittister has some relevance here. "Anger is not bad," she has said. "Anger can be a very positive thing, the thing that moves us beyond the acceptance of evil." It's time to get angry.
Dave Zirin is sports editor for The Nation magazine. He is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" and "A People's History of Sports in the United States." This article is distributed by Agence Global (copyright 2009, The Nation).