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April 4, 2008

Letter to the Editor: Reader calls article on bridge collapse 'riddled with errors'

  • I fully agree that infrastructure maintenance is woefully underfunded. I just don't believe that writing sensationalistic articles is the correct way to pursue additional funding.
  • The March 27 edition of your Construction and Equipment special section included an article titled “The shocking state of our national infrastructure.” (See https://www.djc.com/news/co/11199000.html). This article is riddled with errors and inaccuracies. I find the Journal of Commerce to be an excellent source of information so I was shocked when I read Mr. Lepatner's tabloid article.

    I'd like to address a couple of the major errors in the article.

    Paragraph 3: “…the government doesn't mandate that inspectors periodically revisit original design documents to make sure bridges will hold up under today's conditions.”

    Paragraph 5: “In 40 years, new calculations were never made to determine how much weight the bridge should be holding in today's conditions”

    These statements are incorrect. The federal government does mandate that all existing public bridges be load rated to determine the load carrying capacity of the bridge based on current loads and standards. (Please reference National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS) and AASHTO Manual for Condition Evaluation of Bridges).

    In the case of the Interstate 35 W Bridge in Minneapolis, the gusset plates that caused the failure were not included in the updated structural analysis. Because of this failure, FHWA issued a technical advisory advising agencies to check the capacity of gusset plates in similar type bridges.

    Paragraph 1 on page 4: “Inspection 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.”

    It is important to recognize that there are many different bridge types and bridge materials. For most bridges, visual inspections provide all of the information needed to accurately assess the physical condition of the bridge. Some bridge types and materials do require advance testing procedures such as ultra-sonic testing to accurately determine the condition of the bridge member. Mr. Lepatner's statement implies that advanced technology is not used when needed, which is not the case.

    Paragraph 8 on page 4: “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.”

    This statement is sensationalistic and creates unwarranted fear regarding the condition of our bridges and mistrust in our government. I performed inspections on all types of public bridges (steel, concrete, timber) for more than 10 years and I am fully confident that the governing jurisdiction will restrict or close a bridge when warranted by the condition. Mr. Lepatner implies that we are at risk of dying every time we cross a public bridge. Just to put this into perspective, since 1987 three bridges have collapsed in the United States that were not caused by barge collisions or earthquakes. There were 31 fatalities attributed to those three bridge collapses. During the same period of time (since 1987), 355,161 people were killed on the roads in the United States by drunk drivers. I am not a statistician (or an attorney) but knowing that there were over 11,000 times more driving fatalities caused by drunk drivers than bridge collapses gives me a feel for where the risk lies.

    The collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis was a national tragedy and the failure mechanism needs to be fully understood so that this failure will never be repeated. Informing the public of the facts behind the bridge failure is important but publishing sensationalistic articles that are riddled with errors and innuendo only serves to manipulate the readers and create undue hysteria.

    I fully agree with Mr. Lepatner's point that infrastructure maintenance is woefully under funded. (Please reference Association of Washington Cities 2008 Report titled “Washington's Invisible Backbone”.) I just don't believe that writing sensationalistic articles is the correct way to pursue additional and necessary funding for our infrastructure.

    To help you understand that I have a little background to support my comments I have spent the last 26 years building, designing and maintaining public works infrastructure. I have been a certified bridge inspector for over 17 years. I was a member of Washington's BRAC (Bridge Replacement Advisory Committee) Technical Committee for approximately eight years. I am currently the director of public works for the city of Lacey .

    Scott Egger, P.E.


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