I-35W bridge downed by design flaw; infrastructure issues fade from headlines

Buried inside the nation’s news pages — lost among the big takeout stories about which presidential candidate said what to whom with what insulting effect, President Bush’s confusing trip to the Middle East, and surge and resurgence in Iraq and Afghanistan — was the reason 13 people died and 100 were injured when the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed last year.

A weakness built into that bridge went undetected for 40 years because it involved a part so basic that highway departments and bridge contractors seldom considered it even when they reanalyzed a bridge’s capacity, experts said Tuesday.

The flaw: Undersized gusset plates. So, case closed? It wasn’t a portentous sign of a failing national infrastructure after all? Just a sad, tragic miscalculation by an engineer four decades ago?

Nope. The discovery of a tragic design flaw does not change the fact that the nation’s roads, bridges, harbors, sewage treatment plants, railroads, dams, reservoirs and other public infrastructure systems are inadequate because of lack of maintenance, modernization, overuse or abuse. Nor does it change the fact that pressure should continue to be brought to bear on Congress to provide valid, realistic solutions that retain the public’s infrastructure in the public’s hands.

The National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007 proposal by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), while appropriate for the intent of repairing public infrastructure, would place too much control in private (read “corporate”) hands. But even that bill has gone nowhere since its introduction. It has rested in committee since Aug. 3. Only two co-sponsors have signed on.

The political clamor for action to address the severity of the nation’s infrastructure problems vanished as quickly as the I-35W bridge vanished from the headlines. That amounts to sweeping the issue under the political rug. These severe infrastructure problems remain. According to TRIP (The Road Information Program), a national transportation research group:

• 33 percent of the nation’s major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.”
• 36 percent of major urban highways are congested.
• 26 percent of bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”

Read TRIP’s fact sheet. It is an alarming assessment of the nation’s highway system.

Infrastructure fixes will be expensive. Consider the I-35W bridge alone: According to Minnesota Public Radio, Minnesota will get $195 million from the feds to help replace the fallen I-35W bridge. Minnesota just finished inspecting its 4,000 bridges and found 15 that needed to be closed, repaired or replaced. While low-volume bridges, they represent a financial burden to be addressed.

As the presidential candidates unfurl position after position on issue after issue, few have spoken at length and in detail about proposed solutions for the nation’s infrastructure crisis. Congress has been stalled in partisan bickering. Journalists so intent last summer on covering the I-35W collapse to assign blame and affix solutions haven’t kept their eye on the ball.

That’s sad. Another deadly bridge collapse shouldn’t be necessary to renew calls for action and refocus media attention.

photo credit: Todd Heisler/New York Times

6 replies »

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  2. If we’re lucky, the economic infusion plan Congress and Bush II are considering will include infrastructure upkeep and repair along with everything else. 1% of GDP put into rebates, building maintenance, and infrastructure repair/modernization would be a huge and necessary influx of money.

    Unfortunately, it’s just a drop in the ocean of what’s needed. But you have to start somewhere, I guess.

  3. Sadly, when governments put money into infrastructure, too many hands direct its placement. If you’re a senator or representative, you don’t want to spend money just fixing something; you want to build something NEW so that you can be memorialized. Ditto governors and heads of federal agencies.

    Long live the “Gov. William J. Le Petomane Memorial Highway.”

  4. Once upon a time such structures were ‘over-engineered’, In my area the 76 year old Pulaski Skyway ( which carries far more traffic than was ever even imagined by the engineers) is currently having its “NON-REDUNDANT” supports repaiired.
    I remember my father being so impressed with the US National Highway System (completed in the late 60’s) when it was just a few years old and though it so superior to UK motorways. What he didn’t appreciate at the time though is that US highways have very simple bases about 12-13″ thick. In the standard UK and european highway base is 23″ thick with more layers of varying aggregate material. Euro highways last twice as long 40 years compared to 20) as US highways before maintainence is required. Regular roads are similar in comparision. I suspect the US learned the short term benefits of cheap and fast engineering and construction during WWII and applied it to anything and everything in the public sector and never looked back.

  5. Britisher, is it possible the US followed a policy of non-redundancy because it expected infrastructure repair to be a growth industry?

    Unfortunately, due to gasbags like Gov. Le Petomane, it never came to pass (unlike the gas).