The I-35W Was A Bridge Too Far

There are some tragic news stories that reflect weather and nature related catastrophes like the death and destruction due to droughts, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes. There are sad, tragic stories like accidental drowning, car accidents, and heart attacks.

Then there is the story of the collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota on August 1, 2005 at 605pm. (CDT). There were thirteen deaths due to this bridge collapse and the victims, eight males and five females aged 22 months to 60 years, who were all Minnesota residents.

They were probably returning home after a day of work and were caught in rush hour in a traffic jam, moving slowly across the bridge in a limited number of lanes when the central span of the bridge suddenly gave way, followed by the adjoining spans. The bridge structure and deck collapsed into the river and onto the riverbanks below. Approximately 100 vehicles were involved, sending their occupants and several construction workers up to 115 feet down to the river and onto its banks. Northern sections fell into a rail yard, landing on three unoccupied and stationary freight train cars.

Why is this tragic story so different from floods, hurricanes, drought, accidents, and earthquakes? Because this story should never have occurred and the thirteen people who lost their lives returning from work that August afternoon should never have perished. The bridge collapsed and thirteen people lost their life because this was a bridge too far removed from the oversight of a competent and fiscally responsible state and federal government. Lets examine the record of the I-35W bridge:

In 1990, the Federal Highway Administration gave the I-35W bridge a rating of "structurally deficient," citing significant corrosion in its bearings.

Since 1993, the bridge was inspected annually by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. In the years prior to the collapse, many different reports cited problems with the bridge's structure, yet the state of Minnesota relied on patchwork repairs and stepped-up inspections.

According to a 2001 study by the civil engineering department of the University Of Minnesota, cracking was discovered in the cross girders at the end of the approach spans. The main trusses connected to these cross girders and resistance to motion at the connection point bearings was leading to unanticipated out-of-plane distortion of the cross girders and subsequent stress cracking. The situation was addressed by drilling the cracks to prevent further propagation and adding supports struts to the cross girder to prevent further distortion. The report also noted a concern about lack of redundancy in the main system, which meant the bridge had a greater risk of collapse in the event of any single structural failure.

In 2005, the bridge was again rated as "structurally deficient" and in possible need of replacement, according to the US Department of Transportation's National Bridge Inventory database. The federal National Bridge Inventory database of inspection records show that the I-35W bridge ranked near the bottom of federal inspection ratings nationwide. The I-35W bridge was given a rating of 50 in the year 2005. Out of 104,348 heavily used bridge structures (those with more than 10,000 vehicles traveling on them per day), only 4,227, or 4%, scored below 50.

Problems were noted in two subsequent inspection reports in 2006. The inspection carried out June 15, 2006 found problems of cracking and fatigue.

So what was the reaction by Minnesota state officials when the I-35W bridge collapsed? "We thought we had done all we could," state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told reporters not far from the mangled remains of the bridge. "Obviously something went terribly wrong."

Minnesota Governor Pawlenty must have been equally shocked since he said in August of 2006 that his interpretation of the bridge inspection reports indicated that the bridge "would last until 2020 or beyond." Unfortunately, his prediction was proven wrong by thirteen years and thirteen premature deaths.

Repairing bridges is not as politically attractive as other community projects for state politicians seeking election. In fact up to twenty percent of state transportation spending goes toward more visible community projects like museums and bike paths. Minnesota has used transportation spending on ninety miles of dedicated bike lanes and off street commuter trails.

The large expenditures of fixing and building infrastructure like bridges can often be to cumbersome for state and local governments. This is where the Federal Transportation bill comes into force. However, this bill has been a large part of federal government waste for years. This is the bill that was the sponsor for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska. In fact, the Federal Transportation Bill has been a significant part of the two hundred and fifty two billion dollars of federal pork barrel spending (Citizens Against Government Waste) since 1991 that our career federal politicians have feasted on to help insure their reelection. (See Pork Barrel Spending Wastes Tax Dollars in the National Journal on this site).

So, what had the federal government done to help Minnesota with the I-35W bridge repair, since the 1990 Federal Highway Administration Report deemed the bridge "structurally deficient"? What had the federal government done to help Minnesota with the ongoing recognition of the structural problems with the bridge by the US Department of Transportation? The answer is that the I-35W bridge for sixteen years was not a federally funded infrastructure project despite several federal reports indicating severe structural problems, which would lead to the tragedy of August 1, 2007.

State and Federal Government officials need to fund infrastructure projects on priorities and needs and not the political expediency of the next election. Government needs to address issues of bridges and dams and highways long before they structurally collapse.

The I-35W bridge collapse of August 1, 2007 was a result of incompetent state and federal government oversight. The bridge collapsed because it was not crucial to any congressional politician's election need or special interest group's agenda. The I-35W bridge did not receive proper structural repair because it was a bridge too far removed from the way the political process in this country now works.