Lessons From the Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis?

I grew up just a few miles from the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis. We were a family that was terrified of heights. At least once a month, my father would mention how he thought a bridge over the Mississippi was going to collapse. We would be calling him Nostradamus today, except that his doomsday prediction was about a different bridge (the old Lake Street Bridge, for those who know the Twin Cities). In fact, when officials tried to demolish the Lake Street Bridge to make way for a new one, the first round of explosives proved inadequate — they had to bring in a second round to bring it down. So that bridge proved sturdy, despite my father’s premonitions.

But what, if anything, can we learn from the recent bridge collapse?

One thing I suspect we will learn about is the government’s response to tragedy. No doubt there will be a lot of time and effort spent on extra bridge inspections, and probably a lot of money wasted because no one wants to be at risk for blame if something like this happens again. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend money on bridges; indeed, my friend Tom Paper (who also grew up in the Twin Cities) at Data360.org sent me this link to a chart depicting U.S. government spending on infrastructure as a share of GDP, which has fallen from 3% in the late 1960s to 2% currently. I’m not sure how much of that 1960s spending was put towards building interstates. But my guess is that the money spent in the wake of a tragedy like this one is not spent well.

Something about the events following the bridge collapse that makes sense, but which I never would have thought about, is how a sharp rise in cell phone usage alerted T-Mobile that something had happened before they heard the news reports. This would seem to hint at strategies that could be useful for coordinating quick emergency response more generally, as well as military/intelligence applications.


NeoteriX

The cell phone circuits were completely tied up during the NYC steamline blast as well: I was calling a friend who happened to be on a bus in the area of a blast so that we could meet up for dinner. I couldn't get through. Little did I know what was going on until after the news broke.

kaszeta

As an engineer, I agree with robertplamondon. Much of the current frenzy of bridge inspections is premature until the cause of the Minnesota collapse is understood, and that understanding takes a lot of investigation. To be sure, something got missed in the I-35W inspections, but nobody yet knows what that was.

Pmac

Suburban sprawl brings more driving, more bridges, more infrastructure, more costs. In my small southern town, a fancy-pants Atlanta company came and built a huge shopping area on a former pecan grove 5 miles north of town, abandoning the shopping area in the middle of town. It can only be reached by private automobile. The old infrastructure has to be kept up, and, now, so does the new.

I second KAH re: bicycles; build to the human scale and the infrastructure won't cost so much.

Pmac

Mary

In this climate of "make government work like a business," this kind of thing will keep happening.

There is a fundamental difference between government and the free market, one that all those MBAs out there didn't learn. For business the bottom line is profit; for government--and all nonprofits for that matter--the bottom line is: Was the service provided?

In order to provide services, the systems need to be redundant, and redundancy is the opposite of efficiency. Lean and mean engineering is what was behind not only the collapse of the I35W bridge, but also the collapse of the WTC.

Redundancy is more expensive than efficiency, but it's the only way public services can be reliably delivered. So let's get over this mania for efficiency in government. It doesn't work.

(Don't scream at me about wasteful expenditures. Duh. My response is "KBR.")

J.R. Bovinet

The irony of this tragedy is that in a single day more people will have died in auto accidents than in this bridge collapse. However, no one is trumpeting the tragedy of the automobile culture in the United States. It is an odd juxtaposition of reactions.

lupine

Spending public money on bridges and roads is better spent than $400 million of taxpayer money used to build a new baseball stadium for the twins.

The Metrodome is 25 years old and holds 56,000, the new stadium with its special accommodations for the wealthy has new club seats and luxury boxes and will only hold 40,000. How can you justify spending that kind of corporate welfare to fund expensive entertainment when there are 37 bridges in the immediate area that have ratings below 50%? How many of those bridges could be repaired or replaced with that money?

http://www.startribune.com/10204/story/1341088.html?pagewanted=all
http://www.ballparks.com/baseball/american/minbpk.htm

T-Lu

I was surprised to hear Gov. Pawlenty commending those who ran toward the bridge as if they were coming to help (1%), rather than gawk (99%). Had this been a terrorist attack (and initially there was every reason to think it was) all the extra people showing up could have caused major problems for rescue personnel, not to mention additional targets for terrorists. Although this is hardly the first time that Pawlenty has pushed reason aside to pander to voters.

Dan

"Why should the government spend money on infrastructure? Surely the free market will cause corporations to step in to avert failures that could cause an increase in their costs.

— Posted by pvanderwaart"

Surely the free market will lead to corporations putting the elusive "common good" at the fore of their decisions. Surely! I'm completely convinced by pvanderwaart's argument, and I don't see why historical examples to the contrary---deregulation in power, telecom, and financial services---should be any reason to think otherwise...

Obviously, I'm being sarcastic. I can only hope pvanderwaart was, too.

JO

i understand that it was rush hour at the time of the bridge collapse, and therefore the bridge had a maximum number of cars, as well as tons of repair equipment. what if all these at-risk bridges (i heard one estimate of 174,000) limited the number of vehicles allowed on the bridge at any time, that is, controlled the traffic flow over the bridge, by having a stop light at the beginning of the bridge, for example? (i think i saw this done at the delaware memorial bridge or somewhere.) would this help minimize the risk of collapse? especially since these 174,000 risky bridges can forget about getting that needed repair anytime soon.

Singapore

We really don't need to spend $ on infrastructure. We're too busy spending $200 billion a year in Iraq to boost the profits of Exxon / Halliburton / Bechtel.

mikeyc

Why should the government spend money on infrastructure? Surely the free market will cause corporations to step in to avert failures that could cause an increase in their costs.

Why have a government at all?

BC

I live not far from the 35W bridge. I hope the list from post 4 above is not used to prioritize expenditures without also factoring in a couple other pieces of info. One would be a ranking to determine how a bridge failure would affect human life (let's face it, traffic engineers rationalize this stuff every day). The other would be some sort of ranking system to determine how the unplanned downtime for a catastophic failure would affect the local economy, traffic, etc. The failed 35W bridge would probably rank high on both counts, but others (e.g., a low bridge over a shallow stream with alternate routes) may not.

Rodrik

I am now worried about if the bridges that sill stand today will collapse if I am on it one day. And i wounder what Bush and the government plan to do to prevent this from happening again. God Bless those who lost their loved one's in the bridge collapse. May God be with you.

LEW

Not to take away from those who lost family or loved ones, but on average 120 motorists die EACH DAY in accidents (43,000/yr). What are we doing about them, are they included when we set spending priorities?

mike t

Maintenance

What do our bridges, schools, health care, and safe city streets have in common?

Yesterday, Cathy and I walked the tenth avenue bridge to get a closeup view and a sense of the scale of the collapsed freeway bridge.

It is the biggest disaster I have been face to face with in my lifetime.

As we walked I felt a sense of reverence for my community and a great sadness for the dead and injured. It was a moving experience to walk the quarter of a mile of twisted steel and concrete laying in the river.

This is OUR city, we deserve safe streets, good schools, and bridges that don't fall into the river.

Community infrastructure is important. If our bridges are failing, it's probable that our schools, court systems, child protection, and health care systems are getting the same mistreatment. As a CASA child protection volunteer, I believe this to be true.

As a long time student of public policy, business person, and pragmatic human being, I am convinced that listening to experts and completing their minimal maintenance recommendations is exponentially more cost effective than gambling on the savings of not doing the maintenance.

The following few paragraphs should provide a logical arguement for this thought. First the facts:

Minneapolis City Pages September 5th Economy in Freefall article quoted Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty as estimating the additional costs of gas and extra miles due to the bridge collapse at $400,000 per day, or $146,000,000 over the next year.

Any accurate calculation of additional costs to drivers must include at least a fair minimum amount for the 144,000 cars per day that used this bridge each day that now must find other routes.

Forty eight cents per mile is the IRS allowance for automobile deductions and this does not include the headache factor of clogged traffic and longer commutes that I seem to be experiencing.

Assuming an average of ten additional miles for each car each way (some of us take the longer 694/494 route around town (which is depending on east or west between thirteen and eighteen additional miles bypassing the city on freeways, others drive fewer extra miles through downtown city streets or the 280 detour).

Multiplying an average ten miles each way for 144,000 cars per day equals 2.8 million miles per day times the IRS 48 cents equals $1,382,000 per day, or almost four times the governor's estimate.

Hoping that it only takes one year to finish the bridge, multiply 1.382,000 times 365 and it adds to a little over five hundred million dollars in hard costs to drivers for these detours. Eighteen months bridge construction time would equal over seven hundred and fifty million dollars in hard driver costs.

With no extra consideration for the extra ten to twenty minutes at each end of our commute we can honestly call this the hard cost of the bridge collapse.

Add this to the approximately two hundred million dollar estimated cost of a new bridge, and the sure to be substantial lawsuit settlements for wrongful death and injury from the victims of this disaster, and some minimal value for the businesses that are failing because of their new inaccessibility, and a billion dollars becomes a realistic estimate of the total hard costs of not maintaining our bridge.

New York's 20 year veteran bridge engineer Samuel Schwartz (NYT OP-ED 8.13.07) estimated that 178,000 dollars annual maintainance per year per bridge would keep all of his states bridges in pristine condition ("all bridges guaranteed never to collapse", MINE).

Compare 178,000 dollars to the 1,000,000,000 dollars cost of not maintaining this bridge and you can begin to see the actual cost of our anti tax policymaking that has won the hearts and minds of so many Minnesotans.

It appears to be up to five hundred times more expensive to ignore the advice of qualified people (real engineering experts paid high salaries) than it was to gamble on the small savings to be gained by ignoring their advice. Even if we had spent $178,000 each year for twenty years, the total is $3,560,000 (far less than a billion dollars).

Similarly, in the case of human beings it is much more cost effective to attend to the needs of a child than waiting until disaster strikes. Trying to resurrect a criminalized juvenile or adult with ten to twenty years of serious mental health problems is extremely difficult. A similar financial calculation for failing to help children in child protection systems to receive the help they need to make it in public schools. Traumatized children cost our community a fortune when we ignore them and wait until they are mentally unstable adults to deal with them. Experts will tell you that the time to help abused and neglected (traumatized) children is when you first have the opportunity. It is exponentially less expensive than waiting until they hurt someone.

Our bridge failed the majority of its safety inspections over the last twenty years. Early and sustained annual maintenance would have been the way to save money, lives, and trauma.

Bridges are designed to a factor of ten times their estimated strength needs. Ask any engineer about the significance of a bridge failure.

It is not the engineers that ruined the bridge. It's not the teachers that wrecked the schools, or social workers that are not taking care of children in child protection.

The bridge collapse was the direct result of the people that made the policies, the same people that have been ignoring the engineers and the experts that know what is needed for systems and infrastructure to stay in working order.

The same policy makers that are responsible for the declining conditions of our schools, transportation, courts, bridges, child protection systems and safe city streets.

Policy makers that point fingers and blame others instead of admitting their own failures and especially those that are not working for long term workable solutions to our infrastructure problems should be tarred and feathered (at least run out of office).

Would someone please print a large "YOUR GOVERNMENT AT WORK" sign and post it on the tenth avenue bridge to be seen by the thousands of us poor dumb saps as we drive by the billion dollar fiasco that to this point hasn't been any policymaker's fault?

Who voted for that person anyway? Would you please vote for someone else next time?

And would someone please tell the anti tax people to stay home and count their money at least until the bodies are buried and the wreckage is cleared?

Mike T

I am also a spokesman for Invisible Children
www.invisiblechildren.org/weblog

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pvanderwaart

Why should the government spend money on infrastructure? Surely the free market will cause corporations to step in to avert failures that could cause an increase in their costs.

kah

Making roads safer for bicyclists reduces injuries and deaths for not much infrastucture $.

jimmybear

I am sorry but if the gov didn't spend the money on infrastructure, I would totally ignore State troopers!

The cell phone spike question is a very good one and I would imagine that the AP probably has someone on that at all times. (Cell phone spikes)

wptrocks

Apparently, we need to replace a few bridges across MN: http://www.startribune.com/10204/story/1341088.html

the_admiral

About cell phones being used to coordinate emergency response- good idea, but surely there are a number of possible false positives?

Isn't it possible that the T-Mobile people just suffered from a sort of confirmation bias? It's possible that these spikes happen relatively frequently, but that after this particular one happened, they selectively remembered "knowing" something was wrong. (It's similar to how some people claim they can predict the weather through, say, their arthritis- they remember the times they had boneaches before a storm and forget the other times their bones ached).