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.