Someday, perhaps sooner than anyone expects, the Ocean Drive could cease to exist. That is, you could no longer be able to drive directly from barrier island to barrier island in Cape May County.

Five bridges, four of them ancient, connect those islands. Replacing the decrepit bridges would cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. Just doing all the repairs needed to keep them open would cost tens and tens of millions of dollars.

And the Cape May County Bridge Commission doesn't have the money. The county government doesn't have the money. The state doesn't have it. The only hope is the federal government ... and well, Washington isn't exactly rolling in money to repair Cape May County's ancient bridges. There are crumbling bridges everywhere in the nation.

Welcome to America in 2011.

The condition of the Cape May County Bridge Commission's bridges was spotlighted last week when a brother and sister from Sea Isle City, driving home from high school in Ocean City, plunged off the Corsons Inlet Bridge and into the icy bay 30 feet below. Miraculously, they swam to safety and did not suffer serious injuries.

But the accident highlighted what has been known for years: You can push a finger through the rusted-out railings on this bridge. No way can they stop a car. In fact, according to Cape May County Engineer Dale Foster, the railings on the bridge, built in 1947, were never designed to stop cars.

In November, the commission rejected bids to replace the railings when the lowest bid came in at $3.5 million, $1 million more than was budgeted. The project will be rebid this month. The Bridge Commission spent $3.4 million between 2006 and 2008 in repairs on the Corsons Inlet Bridge. At one point, weight restrictions prevented firetrucks and school buses from using the span. Actually replacing the bridge - which is considered structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, with a superstructure rated as poor - could cost $39 million.

And the 64-year-old Corsons Inlet Bridge is the newest of the Ocean Drive bridges. The other four bridges need an estimated $34 million in total repairs, Foster said.

So how did we get here? Surely, a failure to plan has played a role. But the planning to maintain and replace these bridges needed to begin 25 years ago. Critics like to point to political patronage, expensive salaries and benefits and waste. But eliminate all of that, to whatever degree it exists, and you don't come out with enough to rebuild one bridge.

The problem is bigger than that. It's systemic and stretches from Corsons Inlet to Trenton and back to Washington. America is becoming a nation that cannot afford to maintain its infrastructure. That should terrify everyone.

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