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Collapsed I-35 Bridge Rated Deficient Years Ago, Mirrors National Problem

The span of I-35 bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last night was rated structurally deficient two years ago, Dan Browning reports in the Star Tribune.

The highway bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River on Wednesday was rated as “structurally deficient” two years ago and possibly in need of replacement. That rating was contained in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory database.

Jeanne Aamodt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the department was aware of the 2005 assessment of the bridge. “We’ve seen it, and we are very familiar with it,” she said. Aamodt said the department plans its bridge repairs using information from the Bridge Inventory database. Many other bridges nationwide carry the same designation that the I-35W bridge received, Aamodt said.

Tony Snow confirmed this report in his press conference this morning.

The White House said Thursday that an inspection two years ago found structural deficiencies in the highway bridge that buckled during evening rush hour in Minneapolis. White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability. “This doesn’t mean there was a risk of failure, but if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions,” he said.

Stephen Flynn — who flogs this issue for a living, I should note — says this failure is part of a general collapse in the American infrastructure.

According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation’s 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars. American commuters now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost to the economy of $63.2 billion a year.

It is not just roads and bridges that are being stressed to the breaking point. Two weeks ago New Yorkers were scrambling for cover after a giant plume of 200-plus-degree steam and debris shot out of the street and into the air. The mayhem was caused by the explosion of a steam pipe, installed underground in 1924 to heat office buildings near Grand Central station. In January 2007, Kentuckians and Tennesseans woke up to the news that the water level of the largest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi would have to be dropped by 10 ft. as an emergency measure. The Army Corps of Engineers feared that if it didn’t immediately reduce the pressure on the 57-year-old Wolf Creek Dam, it might fail, sending a wall of water downstream that would inundate communities all along the Cumberland River, including downtown Nashville.

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span.

In the end, investigators may find that there are unique and extraordinary reasons why the I-35W bridge failed. But the graphic images of buckled pavement, stranded vehicles, twisted girders and heroic rescuers are a reminder that infrastructure cannot be taken for granted. The blind eye that taxpayers and our elected officials have been turning to the imperative of maintaining and upgrading the critical foundations that underpin our lives is irrational and reckless.

If it’s true that “many other bridges nationwide” are so poorly rated, my guess is that this will become a priority in a big hurry.

UPDATE: A new report says the warnings go back 17 years.

Minnesota officials were warned as early as 1990 that the bridge that plummeted into the Mississippi River was “structurally deficient,” yet they relied on a strategy of patchwork fixes and stepped-up inspections.

“We thought we had done all we could,” state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told reporters not far from the mangled remains of the span. “Obviously something went terribly wrong.”

Questions about the cause of the collapse and whether it could have been prevented arose Thursday as authorities shifted from rescue efforts to a grim recovery operation, searching for bodies that may be hidden beneath the river’s swirling currents.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    If it’s true that “many other bridges nationwide” are so poorly rated, my guess is that this will become a priority in a big hurry.

    Highly doubtful. Bush has been adamantly against transportation improvements during his presidency. His veto threats of the SAFETEA legislation during the last Congress handcuffed states as they were trying to plan road maintenance schedules and improvements.

    The bill was held up in conference for like two years due to the Republican Congressional leadership’s unwillingness to take Bush on. The compromise that he finally signed was not nearly sufficient to deal with the crumbling transportation infrastructure in the country.

    I wouldn’t expect anything substantive to come from either Bush or Congress as a result of this. Hell, an entire American city was destroyed as result of crumbling infrastructure and very little has been done in that case–why would we expect anything different now?

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  2. frank says:

    and what about the health care system? …big mess but it doesn’t seem to matter.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    If it’s true that “many other bridges nationwide” are so poorly rated, my guess is that this will become a priority in a big hurry.

    I doubt it. As I noted in my post in this vein this morning, we’ve grown accustomed to dealing with the problem after the catastrophe happens. That’s as true of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as it is for infrastructure.

    Note also that this particular problem is a state issue and Minnesotans, more favorably disposed to government spending than many Americans, have the same problem as the rest of us.

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  4. Anjin-San says:

    Meanwhile, we have spent, how many billions on infrastracture projects for Iraq that Bush’s “ally” does not seem to even want…

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  5. Tano says:

    The legacy of a quarter of a century of the mindless Reaganite “government is the problem” mentality, and the endless repetition of the free lunch argument that “tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts” is the key to building a better America.

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  6. Steve Plunk says:

    We should take a deep breath and collect ourselves. There might be 80,000 bridges engineers have labeled “structurally deficient” but most of those, if not all, will still be standing 5, 10, 20 years from now. Engineers lose credibility when they say so many have deficiencies but they can’t see something like this complete collapse coming.

    It’s also too early to start saying this bridge was failing like many others or that we have been doing a crappy job maintaining our infrastructure. Usually it’s engineers and bridge builders (those with a vested financial interest) who make those complaints.

    A couple of years ago engineers at Oregon State University claimed a great number of Oregon bridges were on the verge of failure. The legislature passed a bond funding measure in response but six months later the engineers admitted they overstated the problem, too late to redo the bond and project list. Credibility shot.

    So before we blame fiscal conservatives and their policies we should wait and see what the problem in this case was and temper our conclusions by recognizing the behind the scenes game of money and power in public infrastructure construction.

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  7. Come on Steve, it’s so much easier to just blame Bush and wander off into health care and Iraq and … well, we know it’s his fault.

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  8. Oh, I forgot to add this bridge was on the same river as New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina and Abu Ghraib and …

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  9. Tano says:

    “Engineers lose credibility when they say so many have deficiencies but they can’t see something like this complete collapse coming.”

    Now there is some wonderful logic for you…

    Gee Steve, how do you think it is that engineers express a sense that a collapse might be coming?
    Perhaps by pointing out that the bridges have deficiencies?

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  10. Steve Plunk says:

    Tano,

    The logic may be simple but it is there. If you say tens of thousands of bridges are deficient yet only have a failure every 5 to 10 years how are we supposed to know what is really a danger? Crying wolf will yield that type of scepticism.

    Can we expect those other thousands of bridges to fall this week? No. Can we afford to replace all of them? No. Have the engineers given us any information of value? I would say no. We need better information and we need to wait for more information specific to this failure before we start passing judgement or making public policy changes.

    That’s good logic.

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  11. Grewgills says:

    Can we expect those other thousands of bridges to fall this week? No. Can we afford to replace all of them? No. Have the engineers given us any information of value? I would say no.

    According to the ASCE “It is estimated that it will cost $9.4 billion per year for 20 years to eliminate all bridge deficiencies. The annual investment required to prevent the bridge investment backlog from increasing is estimated at $7.3 billion.” Also according to the ASCE in 2003 $8.8 billion was spent on bridge repair and maintenance, due to additional local and state funding. There appears to be some progress the number of bridges rated deficient or obsolete has been decreasing since the early 90s. Can the federal government not afford the additional $600-700 million per year to eliminate this problem? How do you think this cost would compare with the stepped up inspection program you envision?

    We need better information and we need to wait for more information specific to this failure before we start passing judgement or making public policy changes.

    Earlier you said

    Engineers lose credibility when they say so many have deficiencies but they can’t see something like this complete collapse coming.
    It’s also too early to start saying this bridge was failing like many others or that we have been doing a crappy job maintaining our infrastructure. Usually it’s engineers and bridge builders (those with a vested financial interest) who make those complaints.
    A couple of years ago engineers at Oregon State University claimed a great number of Oregon bridges were on the verge of failure. The legislature passed a bond funding measure in response but six months later the engineers admitted they overstated the problem, too late to redo the bond and project list. Credibility shot.

    You don’t think we have enough information to proceed and you don’t trust engineers and bridge builders to give us that information. How do you suggest we proceed?
    Could you provide a link to the OSU engineers’ admission? I took a quick look and did not see anything.

    The logic may be simple but it is there. If you say tens of thousands of bridges are deficient yet only have a failure every 5 to 10 years how are we supposed to know what is really a danger? Crying wolf will yield that type of scepticism.

    Another example of this phenomenon and I think an apt comparison. Every year tsunamis are generated that can potentially kill thousands of people or can end up being barely detectable events when they make landfall. On a few notable occasions in Hawaii people were warned that a tsunami was on the way but had been warned several times previously about tsunamis that had proved to be innocuous so ignored the warnings. On these occasions the tsunamis were over 20′ in height and hundreds were killed. The geologists watching for tsunami generating events can only let you know about the potential dangers, they cannot give you an ironclad prediction just as the bridge engineers can let you know about the potential dangers but making exact predictions is a different thing. This problem is compounded for the engineers by a 60 month period between inspections that can be extended to 72 months.

    So before we blame fiscal conservatives and their policies…

    It appears that a bill was passed by the Minnesota legislature to deal with this and other transportation issues but was vetoed by the Republican governor who did not want to pay for the improvements with increased taxes. The end result was that investment in highways, roads, and bridges was much less. In the aftermath of this tragedy it is likely that the MN legislature could pass the additional spending and taxes to pay for it and muster the extra 7 votes to override another veto by Pawlenty.

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  12. Steve Plunk says:

    Grewgills,

    The points are A. We need to slow down and not overreact to this isolated incident. B. Engineers can be self serving as well as overreaching with their expertise. C. This has nothing to do with conservative tax policies, light rail took a good portion of money that could have been used for these types of repairs and money was available regardless of the Governor’s veto but repairs were not completed.

    I tried to provide a link to the story in the Oregonian concerning our experience with politicians and the engineers who enable them. We should avoid making this a reason for highway pork projects.

    http://www.oregonlive.com/oregonian/stories/index.ssf?/base/news/1171068953207920.xml&coll=7
    ODOT bridge plan too hasty, audit says – OregonLive.com

    When using experts for public policy decisions we must keep ourselves grounded and realize that they are not infallible. Self interest and scientific limitations mean we can’t trust any of them 100%. Self interest can also mean covering your rear end to an extreme. Claiming so many bridges and deficient when nearly all are in fact adequate makes us discount their warnings.

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  13. Grewgills says:

    Steve,

    C. This has nothing to do with conservative tax policies, light rail took a good portion of money that could have been used for these types of repairs and money was available regardless of the Governor’s veto but repairs were not completed.

    Light rail has virtually nothing to do with this. If anything it lowers road usage and takes strain off of the bridges. The governor’s veto meant that about 1/4 of the proposed money went to roads and bridges. Do you really think that had no effect on how many repairs were made?

    The piece in the Oregonian is not exactly as you originally characterized it. A hasty judgment was made that was later scaled back. The hasty judgment was fueled by the federal government rather than OSU engineers.

    In his response to the audit, ODOT Director Matt Garrett said the agency believes its quick action at the time was “prudent and necessary to protect Oregon’s motorists and the state’s economy.”
    Garrett said the Federal Highway Administration was ready to cut funding to the state if Oregon didn’t immediately impose load limits on the distressed bridges — stopping more than 30 percent of freight flowing through the state.

    When using experts for public policy decisions we must keep ourselves grounded and realize that they are not infallible. Self interest and scientific limitations mean we can’t trust any of them 100%. Self interest can also mean covering your rear end to an extreme.

    Of course no one is infallible and nothing is 100% that is not what is at issue. The engineers working for the government inspecting bridges have jobs if 5, 10, 25, or 50% of bridges don’t measure up to the stated criteria. This is also true of the OSU civil engineering department. There will always be some level of CYA in any endeavor public or private. The bridge safety report gives a 120 point scale, so this can be accounted for (at least to some degree) and the bridges can be prioritized according to condition and usage.
    If we can’t trust the engineers we are pretty much SOL on the bridge front.

    Claiming so many bridges and deficient when nearly all are in fact adequate makes us discount their warnings.

    How do you know that they are nearly all in fact adequate?
    The likelyhood of their still standing x years in the future is largely due to the repairs recommended by these engineers.
    The only to test the validity of your assertion is to forgo all recommended repairs and see what happens. I very much doubt you would advocate this.

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