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A Bridge Map of Danger and Purpose

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

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Remember the deadly I-35 Bridge disaster of 2007? Barry LePatner says there are 7,980 more like it just waiting to happen.

And with his new interactive map, he can show you every single one of them.

 Thirteen people died and 145 were injured in the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse of the I-35 Bridge into the Mississippi River at Minneapolis.

Thirteen people died and 145 were injured in the 2007 collapse of the I-35 Bridge into the Mississippi River at Minneapolis.

LePatner, a longtime construction industry lawyer, is the author of Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward and Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry. To read the book titles is to understand his mission.

Now, to mark the fifth anniversary of the I-35 Bridge collapse in Minneapolis, LePatner has created an interactive Google map of 7,980 U.S. bridges that have been deemed both structurally deficient and fracture-critical, putting them in the same condition as the doomed I-35 Bridge, he says.

Double Jeopardy

Federal guidelines define a bridge as “structurally deficient” if certain key components--the superstructure, the substructure, or the deck--are rated at 4 out of a possible 10 (“poor”), meaning engineers have identified one or more major defects in its support structure or deck. The classification does not mean that the bridge is necessarily unsafe, but that it requires additional maintenance and repair to remain in service.

Fracture-critical bridges lack redundancy, meaning that if a steel member fails, there is no path to transfer the weight supported by that member, and failure can occur quickly. That is what happened in the case of the I-35 Bridge, as shown in a video of the collapse.

LePatner’s map marks the nearly 8,000 bridges in the U.S. that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical.


LePatner says he based his map on public documents that were issued by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009 but were not made accessible to the general public.

“For the public’s information, the FHWA contains only charts that show bridges that are structurally deficient (‘poor’) or fracture critical (‘bridge not meeting current design standards’),” he writes on his website.

The site includes a request for corrections to any of the 2009 data reflected in the map.

“There are 600,000 bridges listed on the FHWA’s National Bridge Inventory,” LePatner’s site says.

“The Save Our Bridges Map pinpoints the 7,980 bridges the FHWA listed as being both structurally deficient and fracture critical that have been omitted from the 2010 and subsequent reporting on the NBI site.”

‘Downward Spiral’

The map is the latest tool in LePatner’s ongoing mission to raise awareness of dangerous bridges among the motorists, cyclists and pedestrians who use them—and, in turn, to increase political pressure on elected officials who hold the purse strings for infrastructure repair and maintenance.

“Every bridge engineer I talk to around the country acknowledges that this will happen on every one of these bridges that’s not being remediated,” LePatner told Dow Jones columnist Al Lewis recently.

More than 600 bridges have failed in the U.S. since 1989, but most were closed and rebuilt without collapsing and making headlines, LePatner says.

“We can’t keep letting politicians off the hook,” he told Dow Jones. “We are in a downward spiral that can only lead to tragedy after tragedy. . . . Gravity wins.”


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Corrosion; Infrastructure; Maintenance programs

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