Infrastructure

The deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis: let the blame game begin

by Amaury Nora

The big story throughout the day yesterday was the Minneapolis bridge collapse and the possible causes for it. Authorities are reporting that five people are confirmed dead and eight were still missing and presumed dead inside submerged vehicles. Another 79 people are injured, five of them critically. As more information continues, we’ll be finding some ugly truths about our bridges and roads in America.

Officials have said that the eight-lane Interstate 35W bridge, a major Minneapolis artery, was in the midst of being repaired and two lanes in each direction were closed when the bridge buckled. It was reported that the center section of the bridge dropped straight down and pancaked in the middle of the river, leaving several vehicles stranded on a broken island of wreckage. As divers plumbed the waters, other rescuers searched frantically for victims amid broken, zigzagged sections of blacktop. Some of the injured were carried up the riverbanks.

Minneapolis’ major interstate bridge, Interstate 35W, was jammed with rush-hour traffic when suddenly huge sections of the arched bridge broke and collapsed into the Mississippi River. Authorities they are expecting the death toll to climb because some people were still trapped inside the vehicles that were hurled into the river. The recovery effort might take at least three days because of the river’s fast-moving currents. Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and Minneapolis police chief Tim Dolan told reporters that there are cars are trapped beneath the water under crumpled concrete and Stanek knows bodies are there. However, recovery efforts stalled because it was reported that divers were not allowed to go into the water until officials were sure that the surviving structure of the Interstate 35W bridge was stable.

In one of the first news conferences, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty told reporters that the bridge was inspected by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2005 and 2006 and that no structural problems were found. He also said that only minor details needed attention. However, it has since emerged that officials were warned as early as 1990 that the bridge was “structurally deficient” due to significant corrosion.

It’s interesting how the state tried to downplay the reason they were resurfacing the bridge, despite knowing that it needed extensive work. As the story broke Wednesday evening, UK’s Institution of Structural Engineers chief, Keith Eaton, told the BBC that the only way a complete bridge can collapse like it did “is either because the load is too heavy, or the connections between the bridge’s structural elements are too weak.”

“The engineers will have to see where the collapse started. Clearly a failure occurred somewhere which imbalanced the whole thing,” he said.

Now that more information is coming to light, it seems to be supporting Eaton’s conclusions as to why the bridge collapsed. The Star Tribune earlier reported that the former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jim Burnett, was intrigued by a 2001 University of Minnesota study that found signs of “fatigue cracking” in the bridge supports. He added that a 2005 federal study found that the bridge was “structurally deficient.”

“A structurally deficient bridge might be one not adequate for the traffic it takes, but not necessarily dangerous,” Burnett said. “But a lot of structurally deficient bridges are dangerous.”

Eaton also debunked an earlier speculation that hot weather contributed to the accident by weakening the concrete or expanding the steel framework; that was not a likely explanation, since modern bridges are built to cope with those extremes. I can see why some people may have jumped to this conclusion considering that back in April, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that North American cities should anticipate “an increased number, intensity, and duration of heat waves.” According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), between 2000 and 2006 Minnesota experienced its 4th, 6th and 8th warmest years.

The 2001 University of Minnesota study went on to express concerns that a single crack could “theoretically” lead to the entire bridge’s collapse. However, it also said that even if there was a crack, the load could “theoretically” be redistributed along the steel trusses or the concrete deck of the bridge, keeping the bridge from collapsing. (Truss is a type of framework – skeletal structure – that was used to construct the bridge. A truss bridge is comprised of connected rafters, posts and struts, which the trusses dissipate, or spread out, the compression and tension forces through the structure when a load is applied.) The report also indicated there was weakness at the joints of the steel that held the concrete deck above the river, due to “unanticipated out of plane distortion” of the steel girders.

Eaton concluded that there is a downside to truss bridges.

“They are made of lots of complex pieces of metal, interconnected bolts or rivets,” Mr Eaton told the BBC.”They have little corners between two pieces of steel where water can collect and cause corrosion.”

Nesting pigeons could also be an issue.

“Their droppings are very corrosive, which can be a problem,” he said.

More intriguing is how the White House was quick to toss this political hot potato back to the state, even though their own 2005 report found “structural deficiencies” on the bridge. White House press secretary Tony Snow said that even though the 40-year-old Interstate 35W received a rating of a 50 on a scale of 120 for structural stability, that didn’t “mean there was a risk of failure, but if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions.” Sure enough, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, immediately tossed it back to the Feds after he ordered an immediate inspection of all bridges in the state with similar designs. He added that the state had never been warned that the bridge needed major repairs or should be closed. Did the Department of Transportation and the White House lie again to cover up their errors?

One does have to ask, is this tragic event another Katrina type clusterf**k, so to speak? Maybe so. The White House did send in the clean-up to show his remorse for this tragedy. The administration also has sent Federal help from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But isn’t the role of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to ensure that our Federal highways are safe to drive on? FHWA’s role

FHWA is charged with the broad responsibility of ensuring that America’s roads and highways continue to be the safest and most technologically up-to-date. Although State, local, and tribal governments own most of the Nation’s highways, we provide financial and technical support to them for constructing, improving, and preserving America’s highway system.

In 2002 and in 2006, the Transportation Department’s inspector general criticized the oversight of major highway and bridge projects. In a 2002 GAO report, the Inspector General noted that since 1997, the FHWA has “done little” to improve the “management and oversight of major highway and bridge projects” to “ensure that cost containment was an integral part of the states’ project management.” The also reported that FHWA acknowledged that “needed improvements,” however they never “addressed many of the concerns … raised in the past.”

In fact, many of the concerns that were raised by Minnesota’s lawmakers were also raised in the GAO report. The report provided a few of the concerns many states had about the cost and management of major highway and bridge programs.

In July 2000, Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reviewed the Virginia Department of Transportation’s 6-year transportation development plan because of concerns that road construction projects were facing large cost overruns or were encountering delays. The commission concluded that cost estimates prepared during the design phase were substantially below the final costs and that final construction costs for projects exceeded the amounts budgeted by substantial amounts. … The study also found that major design errors and the failure to detect significant field conditions contributed to construction costs that exceeded the amounts budgeted for construction.In January 2002, the Connecticut auditors of public accounts reported that the state department of transportation’s use of change orders substantially increased costs through major revisions in the scope of projects.

In February 2000, the Texas state auditor’s office found that increases in workload had strained the state department of transportation’s ability to manage the design process and minimize cost overruns and delays.

In another GAO report, the Inspector General found incorrect or outdated maximum weight limit calculations and weight limit postings in the National Bridge Inventory and in states’ bridge databases and said the problems could pose safety hazards. The Federal Highway Administration agreed that improvements were needed, the same way they have agreed with all the other improvements that have never been made.

Incorrect load ratings could endanger bridges by allowing heavier vehicles to cross than should, and could affect whether a bridge is properly identified as structurally deficient in the first place, the inspector general said.

Not all the blame of this horrific mistake should be placed on the Bush Administration – there’s plenty of blame to go around here.

However, it is time to start asking the really hard questions regarding government accountability. Isn’t it time that our government officials stop passing the buck? It is easy to avoid matters that might disturb our relatively secure and content lives. Maybe this is why many of us prefer to accept what is being told to us by the news. But as long as we choose complacency over awareness, these horrific events will continue. How many more catastrophes must we endure until people are finally forced to open their eyes to the uncaring bureaucratic machine that only waits for needless deaths to occur before it responds?

7 replies »

  1. I’m not sure it’s fair to say that this is “eyes open” in any way, shape, or form. Both parties focus a lot of energy on closing our eyes and ears to everything but a strict party line (the GOP is better at it than the Democrats, though) because in our complex lives, we tend to like simple solutions. Unfortunately, life isn’t simple. There’s precious little that is black/white about anything.

  2. Joshua Holland has a fine article on the subject on Alternet: “Are the Dead From the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse Victims of Conservative Ideology?” He concludes with this:

    “So something more is going on. Stephen Flynn says, ‘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.'”

  3. Who is to say what is fair or not fair. To those who were on that bridge that day were not expecting their bridge collapse on them and I bet you it did open their eyes. Just because you and I are not effected directly does not mean it should be seen any less eye opening than Katrina or 9/11. How can we relying on a criteria regarding the degree of harm when it comes to government negligence.

    I have qualms regarding both parties, which is the reason I stated not all the blame of this horrific mistake should be placed on the Bush Administration because there is plenty of blame to go around here. There are so many confusing and seemingly contradictory layers of relative truth that most individuals surrender significant amounts of their power to those who use language to proclaim absolute truths.

    I just differ on your view on what should be consider “eyes open” catastrophe.

  4. Ahem! How many people today still believe Saddam had WMDs? And the US is in Iraq to spread democracy?

    Um, still quite a few.

    These are the people who listen to Rush and BillO, and who still vote Republican regardless. The poor downtrodden scared white Christian male.

    Hardly qualified to vote on anything more than the winner of American Idol; certainly not for any candidates or issues.

    I rest my case.

  5. I knew someone would blame the GOP for the collapse.

    “According to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), between 2000 and 2006 Minnesota experienced its 4th, 6th and 8th warmest years.”

    So much for global warming.

    Jeff

  6. Beyond bridge maintenance and similar finger pointing exercises, one problem may have been minimalist design engineering. Structural engineers frequently pride themselves in getting the greatest strength from the least materials. While results look impressive on paper and with drinking-straw science projects, they can have disastrous consequences in real life because, if it exists at all, the margin for error is greatly reduced.

    At the same time, politicians just love to brag about how they saved the taxpayers money. Along with corruption, minimalist engineering and political bragging rights may add a few paving stones in the road to hell. The good news is that engineers often learn from their mistakes. The bad news is that politicians usually repeat their blunders because voters have very short memories.

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