Five years after the catastrophic failure of Minneapolis’s I-35 Bridge, are America’s bridges any safer?
No, says the mayor whose city suffered the disaster.
Public officials still lack the political will to muster sufficient resources to repair, replace and improve the nation’s tens of thousands of problem bridges, says R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis’s mayor then and now.
|About 1,000 feet of the I-35 Bridge’s center span collapsed Aug. 1, 2007, leaving 13 people dead and 145 injured.|
Public outcry over the plight of the nation’s aging infrastructure “went away when the cameras went away,” leaving Minneapolis and other cities nationwide in the same danger they faced just before the disaster of August 2007, Rybak told WPXI-TV in an interview on the eve of the anniversary.
‘Could Happen Again’
“This kind of thing could happen again in cities around the country, and in large part because all those promises that all these people from other political levels made to make sure that this ‘never happened again’ have really been broken,” Rybak said.
In 2009, 71,181 of the United States’ 603,307 bridges were classified as structurally deficient and 78,482 as functionally obsolete, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
13 People Killed
On Aug. 1, 2007, the center span of Minnesota’s busiest bridge collapsed 108 feet into the 15-foot-deep Mississippi River in the middle of rush hour. A total of 111 vehicles were on the eight-lane, 1,000-foot segment of deck truss that collapsed.
Ultimately, 17 vehicles were recovered from the river; 13 people died; and 145 were injured.
Roadway work was underway at the time, with equipment and aggregates delivered several hours earlier and staged in the two inside lanes in preparation for a concrete pour later that evening.
Design, Loads Cited
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, detailed in a 178-page final report, laid the cause to:
• Insufficient bridge design firm quality control procedures for designing bridges;
• Insufficient federal and state procedures for reviewing and approving bridge design plans and calculations;
• Lack of guidance for bridge owners with regard to placing construction loads during repair or maintenance;
• Exclusion of gusset plates in bridge load rating guidance;
• Lack of inspection guidance for conditions of gusset plate distortion; and
• Inadequate use of technologies for accurately assessing the condition of gusset plates on deck truss bridges.
‘We Have Not Delivered’
Rybak said that the situation is no better now.
“The one thing that remains an incredibly sore spot, and I think it should, is that we have not delivered on the promise that we would do everything it took to make sure that this did not happen again,” he said in the interview.
The “big push for fixing bridges that need to be repaired, that we all heard about in those hours after the bridge collapsed, kind of went away when the cameras went away,” he said.
“And that’s deeply, deeply troubling to me. And it should be. And so I remain pretty upset that we haven’t been able to get the political consensus to stop another human tragedy from happening.”
Watch the interview.
NTSB chairman Debbie Hersman, however, took a more optimistic view in a blog entry on Wednesday’s anniversary. She credited the Federal Highway Administration and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials with efforts to improve safety.
“Five years later, we recognize the progress made to address the deficiencies identified during our comprehensive investigation,” she wrote.
Hersman said that six of the NTSB’s recommendations to improve bridge integrity and maintenance “were addressed in less than two years after the report.”
“This includes recommendations calling for improving guidance on conducting load rating calculations, consideration of key bridge elements such as gusset plates in design and inspection, and developing specifications and guidance for bridge owners to ensure that construction loads and stockpiled raw materials needed for maintenance projects do not overload the bridge.”
Those changes “will not only ensure that new bridges are being built to higher standards than their predecessors, but that all bridges will be held to that same, high standard through regular inspections and maintenance.”
“Nobody,” she wrote, “wants to see tragedy strike in such a manner ever again.”