The following post is from Eric Steen, Deputy Communications Director of the BlueGreen Alliance.
A few years ago, back in the summer of 2007, people were stuck in rush hour traffic on the I-35W Bridge near downtown Minneapolis. Suddenly, the bridge that spanned the mighty Mississippi collapsed, plunging people and vehicles into the river below, killing 13 and injuring 145. While the collapse made national news, it really hit home for people like me that drove over the bridge several times a week and knew people that were on the bridge just minutes before it collapsed. Phone lines were jammed as people tried to get ahold of friends and loved ones they knew traveled the route.
It made me look at the world differently.
The news of the bridge collapse on Interstate 5 in Washington State brought back the same memories — and some of the same worries. The I-5 collapse was caused when an oversized truck hit the structure, causing an entire span of the bridge to collapse and sending vehicles into the waters below. Three people were injured by their fall into the Skagit River. Fortunately, all of them are fine.
After the I-35W Bridge, I started paying attention to the condition of bridges. When I think back on it, there were a lot of bridges I shouldn’t have driven my bike over, much less my car. I even sometimes rolled my window down when crossing over bridges in the Minneapolis area. Now, honestly, having my window down likely would have done nothing in the event of a bridge collapse (I’m a terrible swimmer and there’s that whole impact thing), but at least it made me feel better about driving over a bridge with rust holes the size of me in them.
Thankfully, the worst ones have been or are currently in the process of being rebuilt. This is in large part due to the Minnesota Legislature passing a transportation bill that focused on bridge safety in the wake of the I-35W Bridge collapse and the also influx of federal funding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act brought to the table after 2009.
After the I-35W collapse, I had to ask myself a few fundamental questions. Why should people in what many of us consider to be the greatest country ever in the history of the world have to worry that the infrastructure they use ever day is safe for them to use? Why were there so many bridges, tunnels, dams, roadways, transit lines, and other vital systems that all of us use every day in such a state of disrepair? And, would the I-35W bridge collapse serve as the clarion call for action or the harbinger of more tragedy to come?
With the collapse in Mount Vernon, Washington, I think a lot of people are asking the same questions today as I did back in 2007.
The answers to them aren’t simple. For the most part it boils down to we’ve made progress, but we’ve got a long way yet to go. One need only look at the American Society of Civil Engineers Report Card to see that progress — through state action like that in Minnesota where new revenue for transportation was raised for the first time in 20 years or through federal investments like the Recovery Act. Back in 2009, 25 percent of America’s bridges were labeled structurally deficient — meaning the bridges may be closed or restrict traffic in accordance with weight limits because of limited structural capacity — or structurally obsolete —a bridge that has older design features that means it cannot safely accommodate current traffic volumes, vehicles sizes, and weights. Today, one in nine of America’s bridges have been rated structurally deficient. That’s a big improvement, but with an average age of 42 years, we have a lot of old bridges that need repairs and replacement yet to go.
The head of the National Transportation Safety Board says the I-5 collapse should be the wake-up call America needs to make the needed investments to make our infrastructure safe. I agree. There’s no reason I, or anyone, should have to drive over a bridge with the window down for fear of it falling down. Our parents and grandparents built us a transportation system that served them and us well. Now, it’s time we make sure that the transportation system we leave to future generations is safe, dependable, and efficient.