Bridge to somewhere
Among the saddest cargo the Mississippi River has had to carry in its otherwise fabled history was the 13 people who fell to their deaths a year ago when the I-35 West bridge near Minneapolis failed. As the news shifted its attention from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts suffering a seizure the day before to watching the bridge disaster unfold a few hours later, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were attracted more by the drama than the need to determine why the bridge collapsed. After all, falling bridges aren’t the norm in America, even though one in five of the 590,000 bridges spanning the nation is at least 50 years old.
Anyway, the authorities would analyze the facts and tell us what happened in reports that we probably won’t pay attention to any more than we would to the larger story: the scary condition of state-owned bridges, which carry 93 percent of truck traffic and 73 percent of the total traffic in the United States. Now, a year after the I-35 collapse, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has published a report — “Bridging the Gap, Holding Together the Nation’s Bridges” — which reminds Americans that 152,000 bridges are in the same shape as the I-35 bridge, and that it will cost billions of dollars to repair them.
To help keep AASHTO from being tagged a Cassandra, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell stood with several of the association’s leaders under an I-95 viaduct in North Philadelphia recently to announce his state’s commitment to repairing bridges. Even though Pennsylvania has nearly tripled investment in bridge contracts since Rendell took office, he successfully lobbied for the Rebuild Pennsylvania initiative, which adds $350 million for bridge work this year. As a result, the state’s Department of Transportation says it will begin repairs on 411 of its 6,034 structurally deficient bridges. Pennsylvania joins nearly two dozen other states that have begun bridge repairs in earnest, according to the AASHTO report.
Rendell, who is chairman of the National Governors Association, also joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger earlier this year to create the Building America’s Future Coalition to help secure federal funds to rebuild our infrastructure. The group’s goal is to reverse the steady decline of federal infrastructure spending as a share of its non-defense expenditures. It noted that between 1956 and 1966, federal infrastructure spending was about 10 percent compared to an average of 3.5 to 4 percent for the past 20 years.
Finally, the most poignant reminder of the I-35 West bridge collapse came about a week before the Aug. 1 anniversary, and from an unlikely source: a 1,200-pound concrete chunk that ripped away from the underside of an overpass above I-35 in St. Paul, Minneapolis’ twin city. No one was hurt — this time.