Congress Fails to Learn From I-35W Bridge Collapse

Five years after the I-35W bridge collapse, Congress has yet to address the failing condition of America's bridges. There is no consensus between the two parties in Congress on how to remedy the situation, unlike the progress shown in Minnesota.
August 5, 2012, 7am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Kevin Diaz chronicles the lack of federal progress in the aftermath of the August 1, 2007 bridge collapse, particularly the failure to raise the gas tax. The only positive development could be the dubious achievement of reauthorizing the transportation bill, three years late and after ten extensions, at current spending levels.

"Billions in federal, state and local dollars continue to pour into the maintenance of the nation's bridges since that span of I-35W fell into the Mississippi River. But at last count in 2010, the nation still had a backlog of 69,223 "structurally deficient" bridges -- 11.5 percent of all highway bridges in the U.S.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, more than 26 percent, or one in four, of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or "functionally obsolete," a separate designation that often means a span was not designed for modern traffic conditions."

Yet there are those who question whether there is an infrastructure problem.

"I think the picture is getting better," said Randal O'Toole, a transportation expert at the Cato Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Washington. In particular, O'Toole notes, the collapse of the 35W bridge was found to stem from a design flaw in its original construction, not a lack of maintenance."

However, O'Toole's perspective appears to be more the exception as to how most in the transportation community view the state of the nation's infrastructure and lack of progress in addressing it.

"Nothing extraordinary came out of the tragedy other than a momentary heightened awareness of the need to invest in bridges and highways," says a disappointed John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

State legislative progress

"The Minnesota Legislature, hit most directly by the political tremors of the 35W bridge collapse, raised the state gas tax 5 cents over the veto of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Facing questions about bridge maintenance under his administration, Pawlenty ordered inspections of all the state's similarly designed truss bridges. The review hastened the replacement of at least one bridge in St. Cloud and repairs to several major bridges around the state."

Thanks to Lee Munnich

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Published on Wednesday, August 1, 2012 in StarTribune (Minneapolis)
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