March 27, 2008

The shocking state of our national infrastructure

  • The NTSB’s report on the Minneapolis bridge collapse shows just how out of control our infrastructure problems are.
    LePatner & Associates


    The verdict is in on the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and the results are far from comforting. We knew the August 2007 disaster was a wake-up call to the poor condition of our nation’s infrastructure, but we may not have realized what a public safety and economic nightmare we were actually waking up to.

    The new report confirms two facts: 1) our government has dropped the ball in a shocking way; and 2) if we don’t take aggressive action now, it’s only a matter of time before the next, inevitable tragedy. Indeed, the real surprise is that more bridges haven’t fallen.

    The report, recently released by the National Transportation Safety Board, indicates that inspectors believe the bridge collapse, which resulted in 13 dead and 145 people injured, was caused by a flaw in the original design. But that’s not the shocking part. Hard as it may be to believe, the government doesn’t mandate that inspectors periodically revisit original design documents to make sure bridges will hold up under today’s conditions — even though many of these structures are more than half a century old.

    AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Heather Munro
    The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed last year wasn’t on the federal list of deficient or obsolete bridges.

    The design flaw revelations are only the tip of a very damning iceberg.

    In 40 years, new calculations were never made to determine how much weight the bridge should be holding in today’s conditions. Was there more traffic flowing over this bridge? Yes. Had renovations been made to the bridge that added weight to the structure? Yes, and there was heavy construction equipment parked on the bridge when it collapsed. But no one ever said, “Wait a minute — let’s make sure this bridge can handle all of these changes that have occurred.” To me, that’s terrifying!

    Poor maintenance

    And here’s some more sobering food for thought: There are 72,000 bridges that the federal government labels “structurally deficient” and 80,000 “functionally obsolete.” The fallen Interstate 35W bridge wasn’t on either list.

    The state of the infrastructure system in the U.S. results from having been poorly managed and underfunded for years. Today, there are no state-mandated minimum standards for the maintenance of bridges and roads. Inspections of bridges are to occur every two years by federal requirements, but when carried out these are often subjective visual observations that fail to use the latest technology to detect cracks and corrosion that may be invisible.

    The U.S. government provides $2 billion in maintenance costs annually for 592,000 bridges that fall within its purview. This works out to a paltry $3,500 per bridge.

    It doesn’t take a genius to realize that $3,500 isn’t enough to cover an adequate bridge inspection. And if you and I can realize that, you’d better believe the politicians who allocate the money know it, too. But politicians don’t get votes for refurbishing infrastructure. It’s a topic that’s just not sexy enough for them, so they’re not interested in backing it. They just bury their heads in the sand and hope that nothing bad happens on their watch!

    Whose money is it?

    Another factor hindering the funding of repairs is the system in play that allows state governments to do what they choose with the money given to them by the federal government.

    The federal government doesn’t give a state X amount of money and say bridge A in your state needs repairs and you must use this money to fix it. So the state uses its own discretion to decide how to use the money, and that may result in, I don’t know, park renovations instead of bridge repairs.

    Today’s problems remain, despite decades of engineering analysis and reports that have highlighted the deteriorating nature of our infrastructure and the costs of remediation — estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars and increasing exponentially every year. Over the years, the problem hasn’t magically gone away but has snowballed.

    There are more than 12,000 bridges in use today whose designs are similar to that of the I-35W bridge. And there are more than 100,000 others that need detailed inspections to ensure their safety. The hard reality is there are no cheap or easy fixes for the infrastructure problem in the U.S., but every day they go unchecked our safety is at risk.

    What this really boils down to is that the bridge you cross on your way to work, the bridge your child’s school bus travels over, or the bridge that leads to your favorite vacation spot could fall. When you look at it that way, you realize that the years of neglect our politicians have allowed — and even encouraged — is akin to a criminal offense.

    A blow to competitiveness

    The longer we wait to solve these problems the bigger they become. Not only is the public’s safety at risk, but these broken bridges and the larger infrastructure problems they signal will also hurt America’s ability to compete in a global economy. What’s more, our crumbling infrastructure is also a security threat that invites terrorists and those bent on disabling our nation’s economy to do their jobs in a much easier, more inviting way.

    There are no simple solutions. Now that we have a huge budget deficit and a recession waiting in the wings, I worry that there is simply no money available to make significant repairs to the nation’s infrastructure. We may have to start with reform of the system — encompassing both the governmental and construction industry arenas — and that will come about only if citizens demand it.

    There absolutely has to be a national dialogue about what we are going to do about this huge problem. And in order to create a dialogue, the people of this country have to demand that politicians take notice. At the moment, no one is talking about it. The presidential candidates are focusing all of their attention on the war, health care and immigration.

    Our politicians have forced us into the driver’s seat. We, the citizens, must insist that our infrastructure problems are made a national priority. End of story. It’s crazy that things have been allowed to get to this point. It’s time we start holding our politicians accountable for their management, or mismanagement, of our money — and there is no better time to do that than election season! We need to start repairing our infrastructure, we need to do it in a financially responsible way, and we need to do it now. Let’s not wait until the next tragedy to get serious about it.

    Barry B. LePatner, Esq., is the founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates. He is also author of “Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry.”

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