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Critical Infrastructure in Decay - A Call to Action

We all watched in awe at the crumbling of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis Wednesday night. At this point, five people are known dead, as many as 8 people are missing, and 27 of the 98 people injured are still hospitalized (5 in critical and 5 in serious condition). It has also been reported that the bridge was deemed in need of repair as long ago as 1990.

Politicizing the issue, or pointing fingers of blame as many are now doing, does nothing to solve the very real problem that the Nation’s infrastructure is in a horrible state of disrepair. The cost to reconstruct this single bridge is estimated as high as $500 million, and that number is dwarfed by the estimated costs of repairing the country’s roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure.

● There are 756 steel-deck truss bridges nationwide (similar to the I-35 bridge that collapsed).

● More than 70,000 bridges across the country are rated as "structurally deficient."

● Of the 104,348 heavily used structures, only 4,227, or 4 percent, scored below 50, or worse than the I-35W bridge.

● The Federal Highway Administration estimated in 2002 that the backlog of bridge repairs would cost $55 billion.

According to another source, about one-quarter of America’s 577,000 bridges were rated deficient in 2004.

In the federal government's rating system, any bridge that scores less than 80 – on a scale of 1 to 100 – is in need of rehabilitation. A bridge scoring below 50 should undergo reconstruction under federal guidelines. In 2004, 26.7 percent of US bridges, urban and rural, were rated deficient, down from 27.5 percent in 2002, according to the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure assessed the condition and capacity of our nation's public works with an overall grade of D. ASCE estimates that $1.6 trillion is needed over a five-year period to bring the nation's infrastructure to good condition. (See entire report)

On June 20th the Partnership for a Secure America called for the equivalent of a new Energy Manhattan Project:

"We must reduce our vulnerability to high oil prices and supply disruptions, and address the dangers of climate change resulting from energy-related greenhouse gas emissions."
Clearly, while not minimizing the importance of developing means to unshackle this country from the Middle Eastern stranglehold of oil, fixing the country’s infrastructure needs to also become a priority (a "Manhattan Project" for our critical infrastructure). We don’t need terrorists to blow up bridges (“soft targets”) if they fall down on their own.

Notes

2 Comments

Oh no----now you're jumping on the bandwagon too. Not that I disagree with your intent, but let's put things in perspective; the 35 West Bridge did not fail because of a structural deficiency per se. The bridge was only 40 years old----just middle age for a bridge.

There was an extenuating circumstance----two lanes of the bridge were undergoing resurfacing from 6.5 to 10 inches of concrete. The bridge collapsed because of an uneven overload burden caused by trucks hauling concrete that overflexed and weakened the steel truss members and pivots. Normal flexing from typical traffic was then sufficient to cause the truss to fail. Even though the bridge was given a "structurally deficient" rating in the past it is what is called a "safety exaggeration"----structural engineers are noted for that----but who's complaining. The question is, will the truth come out or will our expertise at deflecting liability prove superior!

Barry, its not a bandwagon, its a reality. And the reality has long been known. America's infrastructure, our bridges, our roadways and our dams, are in a state of disrepair.

When the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut collapsed in 1983 on I-95, it was caused by the failure of a pin and hanger assembly that had rusted out. The issue is not that the I-35 bridge was being stressed by repairs and traffic. The issue is not whether the ASCE ratings are exaggerated either.

Are load factors misrepresented? Maybe they are, maybe they're not. This 2006 report from the Federal Highway Administration offers some pretty compelling discussion on load factors and bridge deficiency.

One other interesting point, though Barry, is this 2001 report University of Minnesota Civil Engineer report to Minnesota Department of Transportation that found no evidence of fatigue cracking on the main truss, floor truss, or deck truss. A subsequent 2003 report by the Department of Transportation described the condition of I-35W as "fair" on its National Bridge Inventory Web site, stating that it "meets currently acceptable standards." However, the 2001 report also found that the bridge should be considered a "non-redundant structure," meaning that if any key structural feature failed, the bridge would collapse completely.

As long as the transportation system carries our food and other goods, safe infrastructure is important to our Nation's economy. Rust and corrosion is a reality, is it not? Their effect on our bridges and other infrastructure is the subject of an enormous amount of research at our National Labs (and other research facilities). Deferring repairs and maintenance as we generally do, can only compromise our safety.

Admittedly, critical infrastructure is a multifaceted issue. But its also an issue worth discussion in a bipartisan forum.