How Do You Know When a Bridge Needs Attention?

I learned about the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis yesterday evening around 7:00pm and, like everyone else, I was flabbergasted. I checked in with my relatives living in Minneapolis by phone. No problem getting through but they weren’t home. I called my mom to see if she’d gotten any word but she hadn’t even heard about the collapse.

I went back to trying to glean whatever additional information I could. I was watching the local news coverage of the collapse on streaming video over the Internet when my sister who lives in Minneapolis called to reassure me that all of my family up there was fine.

There won’t be definitive word on what caused the collapse for many months, if ever. Minneapolis-based Ed Morrissey commented on the inspection history of the bridge:

The design of this particular bridge made its inspection an even greater necessity. It had a span of almost 500 feet with no struts. When it was built, the city did not want to impede river traffic; barges still carry agricultural goods south on the Mississippi River. Viewers of the television coverage will see that the newer bridge that paralleled the collapsed section had a different design, with a support in the center of the river, and one would expect the replacement to mimic that.

That long span relied more heavily on the engineering of the steel supports, and for 40 years, it worked. Yet the 2001 study by the University of Minnesota noted “many poor fatigue details on the main truss and floor truss system”, the very portions on which the entire bridge rested. The same study also said that Minnesota probably would not have to replace the bridge in the near future. The Pioneer Press report suggests that later inspections reached a different conclusion, or at least gave a stronger warning of problems.

The view that seems to be emerging is that the bridge just got old, its metal was fatigued, and it needed fixing. That’s probably the most likely explanation although we’ll need to eliminate the possibilties of human error or sabotage (I think the prospect of sabotage is extremely remote).

When the bridge was built back in 1967, the world was enormously different than it is now. Medicare and Medicaid had only recently been enacted and weren’t the tremendous impending catastrophes that they are now. FICA revenues being less than Social Security payments was something in the distant future. Taxes took a far smaller proportion of the average guy’s paycheck than it does now. Home loan interest rates were about what they are now (although lots of people were paying under 5%).

Big news included sometimes violent student demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and race riots. The Soviet Union was a huge threat, continuing to expand its influence in the world as U. S. influence seemed to decline. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were in full swing in China and we’ll probably never know the full extent of that holocaust.

There were lots of other priorities for tax dollars than socking aside some dough for maintaining roads and bridges.

How do you know that a bridge needs attention? You know from the very first moment the bridge goes onto the drawing board, while it’s in its planning stages. That the bridge will require periodic maintenance is no surprise. A maintenance schedule can be drawn up and budgeted for from the very outset. Of course, our system doesn’t work that way.

Prudent families save for buying a home, putting the kids through college, medical expenses, and retirement. Yes, it cuts into buying that flat screen TV or taking that vacation. But it’s cheaper, less traumatic, and more secure than waiting until events force your hand.

Prudent companies do similar things. There are such things as capital expense budgets. At least there used to be.

We don’t do that in our civic life. We wait until the last possible minute, maybe even later, until we bite the bullet and take the actions that absolutely need to be taken. Not only are infrastructure issues like roads and bridges going begging but urgent reforms of major government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are being deferred, possibly until the disaster has already struck and a hasty fix will be put into place rather than a prudent, considered reform. And it’s more expensive than planning for things we’re reasonably confident will happen.

Make no mistake: the problems of this particular bridge cannot reasonably be construed as a federal problem. This was a bridge that was wholly within the state of Minnesota and used primarily for local commuting and freight. Cleanup and re-building will reduce the productivity of the Minneapolis area for years—no doubt at greater real cost than keeping the bridge in repair would have been. My point is not to blame the voters of Minnesota. My point is that if the prudent and persnickety Scandinavians in Minnesota (who traditionally aren’t as opposed to government action as many of the rest of us) were willing to defer this particular maintenance, can you imagine the shape that other areas of the country are in?

There are lots of bridges, real and metaphoric, that need attention. Pay now or pay more later.

3 comments… add one
  • Gus Link

    The prudent and persnickety voters of Minnesota have recently been seduced by a group called the Taxpayers League who think that taxes are a greater evil than letting our infrastructure erode. They have convinced the governor to take and stick to a “no new taxes” pledge that made him look like an ass when he raised tobacco taxes and called the tax a fee. The collapsing bridge isn’t the governor’s fault, nor is it the Taxpayer’s League’s. The responsibility belongs to all Minnesotans. I guess the point is that the liberal government loving Minnesota in which I was raised is long gone.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Gus, it appears to me that Minnesota has some of the best bridges in the country.

  • The bridge was actually in the process of being re-decked. The NYT reports that there were tons of material being stored on it by the construction company to facilitate the road work. We see stuff like this all the time out here in LA, where they un-deck half of a bridge, routing traffic to a single side, and then take forever to fix the darn thing.

    So, not only could the “condition” of the bridge’s support-system have been compromised by age, the decisions made by the company hired to maintain said bridge may have contributed to factors that caused its structure to fail.

    Engineering is the study of failure. We seem to forget that in this world where we expect everything to work correctly, each and every time. Maybe my step son is on to something — he’ll hold up a ton of traffic, ’cause he sure won’t let himself be caught at a dead stop under a freeway overpass. The ’94 quake that took down two big ones out here got him thinking about that.

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