Truth about American Bridges   Leave a comment

In a grim sort of way, it’s rather entertaining to watch the hysteria over the bridge collapse on the Skagit River. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure it was an exciting 30 seconds for those who were on the bridge as it fell and there were some minor injuries. I just think the Huffington Post’s hyperbolic lead about the “tragedy” was a bit – well, hyperbolic. CNN was a little bit more circumspect – saying we should NOT be worried about bridge failures, but we should be wary.

I work with civil engineers now and, although I am not a bridge expert, some of them are. Might as well learn about it while I’m there.

Bridges, like all mechanical devices, require repair and replacement from time to time. This used to be understood in our country, but has been lost in the “yikes, the sky is falling” era. Huffington Post is apoplectic hearing that our infrastructure only gets a C+ from the American Society of Engineers.

REALITY: That’s a passing grade and as the Alaska State Department of Transportation explained in numerous news articles over the weekend, it’s also a moving target.

Bridges are inspected every two years, or more often if they are nearing the end of their lifespan. In most cases, the problems a bridge might develop are discovered by inspectors a long time before a failure could occur. A bridge that is “in need of repair” is not an imminent danger of failure. Of course, the term “failure” conjures up the image of the cars riding the bridge into the Skagit River, but failure is a technical term that does not necessarily mean anything close to that catastrophic. A failure could be that the paving needs resurfacing.  Do potholes seem scary to you?

Terms like “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete” sound alarming, but in reality it just means that the bridge no longer meets current design specifications. That doesn’t mean the bridge is an imminent danger of collapse. It simply means that, compared to new bridges, it’s not designed as well as it could be.

For a comparison, consider a modern car with fuel injection, emissions control and anti-lock brake. Now think about a car manufactured in 1959 – four-barrel carburetor, no emissions control and drum brakes. Is that car dangerous to have on the road or is it just different from the cars that are being manufactured today? It is functionally obsolete, but plenty safe to drive.

In the past 20 years, the percentage of structurally deficient bridges has been halved. The remaining bridges requiring upgrade or replacement are not classified as unsafe because they aren’t. Major bridge failures, such as collapses, are rare. There was one in Minnesota in 2007 that was a result of a newer design flaw. It was not at all a maintenance or age issue. The Queen Isabella Causeway collapse in 2001 was caused by four loaded barges crashing into one of the support columns. Not a design or maintenance issue, but an outside circumstance. The Skagit River collapse was caused by an oversized semi-truck hitting one of the support members. The BBC is one of the few sources to actually cover this angle as well as it deserves. The bridge took a significant external hit that triggered the collapse. Yes, a brand new bridge would have a redundancy to prevent a collapse, but it might have other, unforeseen structural issues that the older bridge didn’t have. The fact is that, while the bridge was of an obsolete design, it was safe for the normal traffic it received. The truck and its pilot car caused the collapse.

I admit to a bit of nervousness about writing that because someone will take it to the extreme and want to outlaw semi-trucks or some like nonsense. Moderation is the key in this. Oversized loads are supposed to know the route they’re taking and be in constant contact with their pilot car to avoid unforeseen circumstances. Apparently, in this case, there was a failure of one or both of those safety features that interacted with the bridge. Had it not taken the hit, the bridge might have continued doing its job for decades to come with occasional maintenance.

I’m sure I’ll get some arguments about this, but the trucking company should have to pay for the repairs of the bridge. It’s highly unlikely that any company carries enough insurance to cover the replacement of an Interstate highway bridge, but they should have to make up what it will cost us for the premature replacement of this bridge because they caused the collapse.

I’m also going to argue a point here – CNN’s article makes it seem that President Obama has been asking for upgrades on all the bridges that are “functionally obsolete”, but just hasn’t been able to convince Congress to pony up the funds. Point Number 1 is that with the ban on earmarking, Congress has been forced to hand monies over to the US Department of Transportation to use any way it sees fit and those funds have not been used to upgrade bridges. Why? I don’t know. Maybe President Obama would like to tell us the REAL answer to that.

Point Number Two is also that it is not surprising Congress is unwilling to give the USDOT more money since it is not using the money it already receives where it seems to be needed. The country is out of money. It’s time for us to recognize that we cannot afford Ferraris and need to either repair the old Chevy or buy a new Ford. The administrative state needs to learn to do its job at a level of funding the country can afford. The American people also do not want the federal gasoline tax raised. The American taxpayer is already strapped to the ground with taxes and the very real inflationary prices of food, fuel and electricity. Most of us are unwilling to pay for an increase in the federal gasoline tax because we see it wasted on projects like the Big Dig and we’re unwilling to agree to an increase in our state gasoline taxes so long as the federal tax remains so high.

Bridge repair and maintenance should be our first priority and then, with careful planning, truly dangerous bridges should be financed through the sale of tax-payer-approved bonds. Yes, the voters should be allowed to vote on whether or not to mortgage their homes and businesses to pay for replacing bridges. I think we’d quickly find out that a lot of bridges just needed some repairs.

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