Solution for Collapsing Bridges: Leave Politics Out of It

Last week, the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge on I-5 in Northern Washington, 40 miles south of the Canadian border, brought the national spotlight back to a perennial claim – that thousands of bridges across the nation are near collapse due to years of reduced transportation funding. Democrats immediately lept into action, like some sort of superhero with superhuman finger-pointing powers – blaming the GOP in a coordinated attack. This served to bolster the Obama Administration’s theme that we have neglected our infrastructure needs for far too long. Eagerly taking the bait, Speaker Boehner has answered the constant charges by proposing new revenues to be dedicated to infrastructure investments. But a provocative article challenges these cries for new infrastructure investments to fix our crumbling bridges as little more than political posturing and attempts to take credit for unnecessary but publicly popular boondoggles that will not solve the problems they claim.

On his blog The Anti-Planner, Randall O’Toole, a senior fellow at CATO, had this to say:

An economist named Ed Dolan who lives in Washington state opines that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge reveals an “infrastructure deficit.” That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom. But consider this.

The bridge collapsed because one of its supporting beams 14.5 feet above the pavement was hit by an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge. If that oversized truck had hit that beam in 1955, the year the bridge was built, it would have collapsed then. Instead, the bridge stood for 58 years before being hit by such a truck … That doesn’t prove we have an infrastructure deficit; it only proves that every bridge has a limit to what it can carry … According to a group called Save Our Bridges, which wants Congress to take action to solve this non-problem, “Repairing the top 2,000 bridges will cost $60 billion and employ 1.2 million construction workers.” The group adds that “deferred maintenance only adds to our national debt.”

But as O’Toole points out, deferred maintenance had absolutely nothing to do with the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge – in fact, thought it had been graded as “structurally deficient” by the Washington Department of Transportation, recent maintenance and improvements restored the bridge to satisfactory status:

The Skagit River Bridge wasn’t particularly worrisome to state engineers. Structural inspections showed its condition to be average … Steel-truss bridges like this one are designed with a complicated web of forces distributed through the interdependent parts … It’s a trait shared with a bridge in Minneapolis, which fell Aug. 1, 2007. Rush-hour traffic stalled on that bridge went into free-fall, and dozens of vehicles plummeted into the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died, and 145 were hurt. The Minneapolis bridge, supported from beneath, was known as a decaying structure, unlike the Skagit bridge.

The I-5 bridge’s superstructure — including steel overhead trusses — was rated as “fair” while the substructure, or columns and foundations, was “satisfactory” in the National Bridge Inventory.

The bridge is on a 24-month inspection cycle, and also must undergo an underwater inspection every 60 months. It was inspected in August and November last year and repairs were made, said DOT Secretary Lynn Peterson.

And that brings us to the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. The prevailing assumption is that this too was the fault of “crumbling infrastructure” – in fact, President Obama himself has repeatedly advanced this claim. The only problem is that this is not actually what happened. Back to O’Toole’s article for an explanation:

Nor was the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in 2007 suffering from deferred maintenance. In fact, it was undergoing maintenance at the time of the collapse. The National Transportation Safety Board report on the collapse found that it was caused by a construction defect: certain parts called gussets were thinner than they should have been. The gussets were hidden, so the only way state maintenance workers could have detected the problem would have been to dismantle the entire bridge.

So really, what these two disasters indicate is that we actually don’t suffer from underfunding of our national infrastructure improvement needs. One was caused by human error; the other by a design flaw. Indeed, at the time of the collapses, both bridges had either undergone or were currently undergoing the very maintenance that political opportunists are saying was lacking. But hey, when disaster strikes, politicians stand at the ready to offer solutions we don’t need to problems that don’t actually exist.

Beware the politician who comes offering solutions from the government.