The UNFATHOMABLE cost of fixing ALL THOSE BRIDGES: a moment of perspective…

According to an article in today’s Washington Post:

WASHINGTON — More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated structurally deficient like the span that collapsed in Minneapolis, and engineers estimate repairing them all would take at least a generation and cost more than $188 billion.

One prominent blogger is appalled:

This is the kind of disaster that just doesn’t happen in the United States–a bridge spontaneously collapsing, apparently, into a river. It is hard to convey to those who don’t live here the astonishment of this sort of catastrophe happening on our most traveled highway.

No, this kind of thing never happens in America. Ever! But if it did, it would be the fault of the Democrats (if you wondered what all those dementors are going to be doing now that their services are no longer required at Azkaban, it looks like some of them have landed work writing press releases at the White House). But hey, at least we can count on our leader in a time of crisis not to politicize a tragedy for political gain. So we got that going for us.

Where was I before I digressed? Ah, right – this never happens in America. Well, almost never:

Let’s see, any other interesting items in the “crumbling infrastructure” file? Well, there was that little steampipe thingie a few weeks ago, but that was only 83 years old.

Anyway, $188B – that’s a lot of money. Taxpayer money. And we simply can’t afford that kind of reckless spending. Errr, hold on, we just found this:

One thing is certain about the Iraq war: It has cost a lot more than advertised. In fact, the tab grows by at least $200 million each and every day.

So, according to my calculator, what we’re spending in Iraq would pay for all those bridges by around Christmastime, 2009.


23 replies »

  1. Seems like with that we could have nationalized health care. Dump the drug war, and we could have bridges and roads.


  2. Empires always rot from the inside and ours is no exception. The bridges are symptomatic of much more significant difficulties.

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  4. I fear the continual revelation of our systematic implosion. I have a lot more living to do; that is, if I don’t die because some heavily utilized public utility was dilapidated and failed catastrophically.

    Thanks for taking my tax money and giving me more oil for only 2x the price before we went to war… and nothing else. Well, nothing good anyway.

  5. Heh – sorry about that. I forgot to turn off the snarkasm before commenting. 🙂

    Ultimately, you’re making too much sense. You’ll get nowhere in politics that way.

  6. Critical metal fatigue is a real engineering problem. Metal, subjected to vibrations – especially random ones – develop hairline (and, frequently, untestable) cracks. These – very occasionally – spontaneously, and catastrophically, give way. I’m not sure of the full design of this bridge but this is one potential area of failure.

    Secondly, minor seismic events, or even destabilisation of substrate can all act to undermine foundations. On such an active bridge it can all happen rather quickly.

    Maintenance minimises risk, but it cannot remove it entirely. Blaming the problem on a reliance on subcontractors is downright spurious. What, you want the US to be the Soviet Union where everyone works for the state because that will make everyone safe? For what definition of “safe”?

    So, 70,000 bridges across the country are “deficient” – and Sam, you give 6 examples of bridges that have collapsed “recently”. That still gives only a 0.009% chance that a bridge will collapse any time soon.

    I’m not saying that the problem mustn’t be investigated and corrections made to any failure in the maintenance process. I am saying, let’s be careful before jumping to conclusions without any evidence about anything.

    Contextualise this. You’ve got a greater chance of dying in a car accident. I think you can cope with the risk.

  7. So either we do it the inefficient way its always been done, or we have to be like the Soviet Union!! Exaggeration ad absurdum. We need a shift in priorities to practical matters like infrastructure and health care, and away from making war profiteers (read politicians and their friends) richer through endless pointless war.

  8. Gavin: there are basic engineering standards that are designed to maximize the integrity of bridges. I went out of my way not to list all the ones that collapsed when they got hit by trucks and the like, even though in some of those cases better maintenance would likely have prevented the collapse.

    In the US we’ve had this crumbling infrastructure problem for awhile and it’s largely driven by the fact that the GOP has convinced people that all taxes are evil. Yes, this kind of maintenance costs tax money, and it’s the sort of thing that “tax and spend liberals” have a hard time making sexy enough to sell.

  9. The “our crumbling infrastructure” story was a Time/Newsweek cover kind of story some 20 years ago. But it only seems to be news when something breaks. The tougher questions — who’s going to pay for the work, when’s it going to start, etc. — aren’t nearly as sexy, so the story slips beyond the news eye’s vision again.

    I just sent a local newspaper reporter two links: one to a spreadsheet listing the construction dates of all of New York state’s bridges in five-year increments; the other to a map showing posted bridges and providing details on the postings. If the story ever gets done, it will get done superficially because the news staff has been cut to the marrow, then diverted to an endless parade of special ad-driven sections that have absolutely nothing to do with news and absolutely everything to do with making money.

    I am going to stop typing now before I pound the keyboard into smithereens.

  10. This is one reason we need to refocus the country away from the failed agenda pushed by the Republican leadership and work on a progressive agenda of effective government and public investment. If the government had invested in our nation’s bridges, roads, public health, etc., then this problem might have been caught before the bridge collapsed and people died.

    The state government holds some responsibility here, too, since they elected to go for “arms-length” inspections of welds instead of spending the money to reinforce the bridge with additional steel. Of course, without knowing the cause of the collapse, we don’t know if that would have been enough either.

  11. When either the “New Madrid” or “Southern San Andreas” earth quake fault takes a slip there will be 100’s if not thousands of disasters this size. Both faults are locked and loaded.

  12. But, hey, let’s not forget the fact that WE the people let this happen. No, I don’t just mean by electing Republicans but by fighting against the taxes and fees that pay for doing this kind of work. Take Pennsylvania, where the governor is trying to get tolls put on a major interstate to use for road and bridge repair and for mass transit. The good folks in the area where the road is located are fighting it tooth and nail. Can’t have all that money coming out of their pockets and going for the greedy city dwellers who can dang well just pay for their own mass transit. Or, take the time they proposed adding 10 cents to a toll at a turnpike exit to be used for building a connector between the toll road and another interstate. People made such a fuss about that extra 10 cents that the idea was never implemented. We can’t just blame the politicians since WE’re the ones who won’t vote for them when they want to raise taxes. Of course, too many of us have no idea how much of all that money coming out of our pockets is flowing directly into the pockets of the so-called defense contractors and industrialists with no benefit to us whatsoever.

  13. That’s what you get for building all your interstates in the ’50s and then not doing enough maintainence, I guess. Everything starts failing at the same time.

  14. How is this a partisan issue? This is a 40 year old state-owned bridge in Minnesota. There is more than enough blame to go around.

    Where were all of the progressive voices in favor of infrastructure investment last week? Business has been banging this drum for years with little effect.

    This is at least one area that should be beyond ideology. We all need good infrastructure. Let’s get some bipartisan political support for the investments that need to be made.

  15. There are many, many areas that should be beyond ideology but aren’t, and I agree that this is one of those areas. And you’ll find that at least this progressive has been calling for infrastructure investments for a while (in this post here, in the “public investment” paragraph).

    Progressive doesn’t mean Democratic, even though I’m a reluctant Democrat. It isn’t inherently anti-conservative either, given the proper use of the word. Progress and conservation aren’t inherently contradictory. But the fact of the matter is that the recent anti-public investment fanaticism of the GOP leadership has obstructed progress on developing fiscally responsible solutions to our decaying infrastructure.