A (Collapsed) Bridge Too Far

The liberal political site Daily Kos maintains an infrastructure series; recently it posted an entry titled “Another Week, Another Bridge Collapse in America.”

This past Monday, news came of another bridge collapse in the United States, this time in Chattanooga. The fact that a bridge collapse has to be qualified with the determiner ‘another’ in the richest Country the World has ever known is distressing, even more so considering said bridge was also part of the largest infrastructure project the World has ever know.

Late Monday morning, the side of an overpass on I-75 collapsed, tumbling onto the ramp headed to Chattanooga. This bridge had been built in the 1950’s, and was recently inspected in July 2018. The condition of the bridge was found to be ‘Fair,’ which sounds more like a weather report than something very large that can collapse and kill you.

This particular collapse was evidently caused by an oversized truck that had slammed into the bridge and weakened it. But nationwide, the number of structurally-deficient bridges is staggering; assuming funding at current rates, engineers estimate that it will take 82 years to repair all of them.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association has issued a report based upon 2018 data. It shows

  • There are 616,087 bridges in America
  • Of those, 47,052 (nearly 8%) are “structurally deficient” and need urgent repairs
  • 235,020 bridges (38%) need some sort of repair
  • Americans cross structurally deficient bridges 178 million times a day, including such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge over the San Francisco Bay
  • The average age of a structurally deficient bridge is 62 years

Structurally deficient doesn’t necessarily mean that the bridge is in imminent danger of collapse, but it also isn’t a label affixed to bridges with minor problems. The post included the definition used by Virginia’s Department of Transportation:

Bridges are considered structurally deficient if they have been restricted to light vehicles, closed to traffic or require rehabilitation.Structurally deficient means there are elements of the bridge that need to be monitored and/or repaired. The fact that a bridge is “structurally deficient” does not imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe. It means the bridge must be monitored, inspected and maintained.

More than 1200 bridges in the state of Indiana are considered structurally deficient.

The Daily Kos post links to a list of the bridges in the worst shape. As the list makes clear, the worst bridges are exclusively urban interstate bridges.

Why are highway bridges in urban areas the most dangerous of all in America?

  • Decades of neglect of urban infrastructure by state and federal authorities who feel taxpayer dollars are better spent on rural and suburban constituents. (Thanks to gerrymandering, this is the case in Indiana.)
  • Lack of public transportation, or overcrowding of public transportation, forcing these structures to carry far more vehicles than they were ever designed for.
  • Replacing these structures in an urban environment, where service cannot be interrupted and there is no available real estate to build a new bridge alongside, is extremely costly.

When you think about it, governments exist to provide infrastructure–not just physical infrastructure, but also the social infrastructure that prevents what Hobbes called “a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

When a government can’t even sustain the physical infrastructure, it is a failed government.

24 thoughts on “A (Collapsed) Bridge Too Far

  1. While this is a relatively minor bridge deficiency issue, it does fit in with our local bridge problems. The bridge on East 16th Street over Pleasant Run Creek has a 4-way stop sign at the east end; this is a residential neighborhood but East 16th Street is heavily traveled and traffic stands on the bridge at different times of the day. SEVEN years ago the full center section of the south side cement wall along the bridge sidewalk was suddenly gone, leaving a lengthy opening above the creek. After a short while the city placed wooden saw horses in front of the opening but they kept disappearing; whether pushed into the creek or stolen I have no idea. FIVE years ago the city placed two sections of cement retaining wall on the sidewalk; leaving openings to the creek at both ends. It is now FIVE years later and the situation has not been repaired. As I said, this is a relatively minor bridge deficiency issue, but it IS a bridge issue.

    Are these smaller bridges considered when statistics are compiled regarding these dangerous bridge conditions? The general condition of East 16th Street in this area is deplorable; pot holes between Pleasant Run and Arlington Avenue have been filled for the 2nd time this year while the crumbling conditions continue to be ignored. Roads and streets – and highways and interstates – leading to and crossing all bridges, as well as traffic statistics, should be part of the equation; but are they?

  2. Easily solved with conservative thinking: the only way to deal with poor bridges is another tax cut — and let private enterprise form ferry companies — again.

  3. #NEOLIBERALISM

    Forty years of it…

    More close to home, Indiana’s infrastructure was rated a D+ several years ago. Has anybody driven I-69 from Indy to Muncie lately? OMG

    Yet…yet…yet…we closed another legislative session with nearly $2 billion in banks. Do Hoosiers even understand the concept of theft?

  4. Add the massive increase in massive trucks, as we move from inventory on hand to inventory on demand, and move by road rather than move by rail. As a kid, tractor trailers were occasional sights on the highways and we got so excited to see them from the back of the station wagon that we’d pantomime the pulling motion until the trucker blew his air horn. Today, they infest our highways like mosquitos on a summer afternoon.

  5. Infrastructure repair is at the top of everybody’s to do list, until they are in a position to do it. A few years ago, we could’ve borrowed at a rate of 1% to begin this project. It would have created thousands of jobs and brought in much more than it cost. It was the smart thing to do. Maybe that’s why we didn’t do it.

  6. We need to re-think that phrase “richest Country in the World”. Richest for whom? The part time employee working two no benefit jobs at minimum wage? The black single mother unable to afford food for her kids? The barely educated rural teenagers trapped in a community addicted to cocaine and designer drugs? Or maybe the Hispanic family torn apart by ICE, their children kidnapped and shipped across country to some unknown institution and lost in the system?
    We are a lot of things, but “richest” isn’t one of them.

  7. Sheila’s post is spot on.

    Roads should be at least self funding. If people want decent, safe roads we should predict that cost and then adjust the fuel tax accordingly. Localities like property tax revenue because it’s more stable funding, but roads should be primarily paid for by the people who use them. Using fuel taxes instead of property taxes puts the burden where it should be and makes alternative transportation more viable.

    We need to increase the federal gas tax. It hasn’t been increased in 26(?) years and the cars and trucks get much better fuel mileage. Many more miles are driven for the same amount of revenue. A higher gas tax would discourage larger vehicles also – which would help reduce climate change (and road damage) over time. A higher gas tax is unpopular, but not as unpopular as tolling.

    I would also limit the number of billboards and then heavily tax them based on traffic count. Billboards are litter on a stick, and they should be paying for the captive audience. If there are going to be billboards, they need to provide significant revenue for the roads from which they generate their value. Of course taxing them would greatly reduce their number… win-win.

    Any greenfield development should include an impact fee to help defray the cost of building new roads and infrastructure that they impose. This would also provide financial incentives for more compact development and re-developing existing areas instead of allowing leapfrog development. There should be a moratorium on new highways.

    As a country, we have been made much more poor by some of our misguided military involvement (Iraq war comes to mind). We can’t sustain such a massive military – it’s depleting resources needed everywhere else. We need a broader definition of “strength” that incorporates education, innovation and economic strength — not just military might.

    A new administration could place a greater emphasis on rebuilding our country – roads, airports, housing, flood control, energy grid, etc. with a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency, mitigating effects of climate change, and growing the economy. Construction jobs are typically high paying, and tend to emphasize domestic labor and materials.

    It would warm my soul to actually be building the country up instead of so much emphasis culture wars and actual wars.

  8. Response to David Honig.
    The increased numbers of heavy tractor trailers you mentioned cause most of the damage to highways. If their freight loads were transferred to trains, and lightweight local-delivery trucks, I-69 would last decades longer with little need for repair. If heavy trucks were taxed in direct relation to highway damage they cause, a shift away from highway heavy truck traffic would occur.

  9. The Chinese have bullet trains; we talk about them. Post Hiroshima Japan and a ruined Germany have trains that transport both passengers and goods on time and quickly. Here our bridges collapse and ingress and egress to interstates is beginning to resemble Chris Christie’s George Washington Bridge (too far) in politics some years ago.

    I think the problem is one of governing philosophy and that the Republican Party has been captured by libertarian interests (see Kochs, Mercers et al) whose sole interest is in making money in a wild west marketplace devoid of regulation, and whatever we may think about Chinese authoritarianism (and I deplore it), they are investing in infrastructure and their people – and we aren’t, investing instead with tax breaks for the rich and corporate class (see the Trump-Ryan recent tax law). Result? The Chinese have bullet trains while our politicians talk about them all the while lavishing ever more borrowed tax money on our grandchildren’s bill to present day libertarian capitalists run amok.

    I think the FDR approach to governing which invested in people and infrastructure (TVA, CCC, WPA, Social Security, federal bank deposit insurance etc.) is the way to go if we really want to make America great again as opposed to current use of the phrase as a meaningless propaganda tool. Republicans, of course, as they did with Social Security, would denounce any such investments as socialism, but I for one am interested in any ism that works, and the one we have today is only working for the entrenched few via tax breaks for the rich and wage inequality for the rest of us, which I find intolerable. We need new policy-making personnel come the fall of 2020, bigly.

  10. INFRASTRUCTURE? WE DON’T NEED ANY DAMNED INFRASTRUCTURE. LET’S BUILD ANOTHER AIRCRAFT CARRIER INSTEAD SO OUR MIC CAN GET RICHER. BRIDGES? WHO CARES? LET ‘EM FIND ONE THAT HASN’T COLLAPSED YET.

    So speaketh the Republican party in 2019. Many of the contributors on this blog, including myself, have been warning about the vagaries of the Republican model of “governance” for years. Every day, these warnings are turned into actual events. If Republicans are allowed to continue to “govern” much longer, we won’t have a country at all. We’ll be just another banana republic with a corrupt dictator at its head. Well done, voters.

  11. Wow! We skated through this entire exchange without mentioning cavernous ravines (not even potholes) on our city thoroughfares. Most refreshing. I live half time in Canada in a rural community around a serene glacier formed lake. Private roads service all residential properties. Volunteers are summoned to help maintain mostly unpaved roadways and lanes. After new construction, the owner is responsible for repairing damage to road surface and shoulders by heavy equipment. Everyone chips in annual road and snow removal fees, even if you only live their less than a month a year. I serve as the Road Chairman for our sector. We experience on average 90% compliance. The ones that don’t are the folk who complain about taxes but do not even lift a shovel to relieve the burden of government oversight and intervention which they conveniently disdain. Here in the USA and in Canada, we elect such Marvel’s of civic duty out of wishful thinking we can have it all for far less. There is a correlation between crumbling infrastructure and total disconnect with an electorate who fails to understand the sacrifice it takes to maintain our lifestyle with public investment. Otherwise, get out your shovel and do it yourself.

  12. Kurt; 2 or 3 years ago Indiana added a gas tax to be used for road repairs only. Last year they added the Transportation Infrastructure Improvement tax to our vehicle registration. We also pay for road repairs with part of our property taxes. What else do you suggest they tax to pay for our roads…increase our sales tax on all purchases maybe? Maybe a restaurant tax; we do have to drive on streets and roads to get there?

  13. Thank you Sheila,

    This is what happens when you have politicians at the state or local legislative levels that like to keep running budget surpluses on hand as a political ploy for re-election purposes. They like to be able to point to them as proof that they are being, at least, fiscally responsible but disconnect that from their responsibilities regarding insuring public safety. Basically, a local version of what we continually see at the national level. It is nonsensical but we let it happen because we mostly only gripe at the condition of our roads and bridges, or the conditions of our schools, and remain asleep at the switch in caring about the reasons why they are that way. If we could all grasp the notion of us actually being the government and act accordingly to clean house once and a while this might change. Unfortunately, given how purposely distracted as we are it will take a disaster to awaken us. Maybe.

  14. The Neo-Liberals, Crony Capitalists and Tea Party types have been very effective in demonizing taxes for almost anything for the public good or commons.

    The tax burden falls repressively on the poor and middle class. As an example Amazon paid no federal income taxes in 2018, Amazon paid $0 in U.S. federal income tax on more than $11 billion in profits before taxes. It also received a $129 million tax rebate from the federal government. I suspect all of here paid more in Federal Income Taxes than Amazon did.

    You also have the Corporate Welfare when states and local governments find various methods for big companies to receive “incentives” or abatements.

    We know from various sources how the extremely wealthy avoid taxes by shifting money to so called tax havens. Multi-national corporations can also avoid taxation using similar methods.

    With the exception of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, I can think of no other candidates for President that has specifically addressed this issue of tax avoidance by the 1% and large corporations.

    Politicians could step up to the plate and start taxing the uber wealthy at higher rates with no loopholes. Most of our politicians Democrats and Republicans prefer to remain in the dugout.

  15. @Joann Green

    Part of the problem is that Indiana waited so long to increase the gas tax. There’s a serious backlog of demand. Also, most of that money goes to INDOT – not the local roads. Indpls will get about $18 million this year – which isn’t much at all. Again, that gerrymandered legislature… they don’t want to give money to urban centers that are largely blue.

    Lastly, because it’s a state tax, truckers – who do significant damage to the roads – can fill up in another state where it’s cheaper. That’s why the federal gas tax needs to be increased and then rebate some back to states and localities.

    I’m not a big fan of paying for roads with property taxes. They should primarily be paid for using fuel taxes. Only when people begin to pay for the real cost of providing roads will other forms of transportation (such as rail for freight) become more viable. Likewise commuting long distances for work will become less attractive.

  16. We need to elect visionary politicians who can build for a future different than today. Instead we elect celebrities who add to our already overloaded entertainment supply. It’s no longer a matter of reasonable budgeting. It’s a matter of priorities aimed at adapting to the world we will live in

    If you think the infrastructure is bad today wait until you get to use it in a climate significantly different than the only one you have ever known. I predict these will be the good old days.

  17. People complain of being taxed to death or dying from dangerous infrastructure failures. I prefer to die from natural causes.

  18. first off, as a trucker, under stand,,,, the goverment will not, privide a roadway adequate for the masses, it doesnt happen.. as a trucker with 6 million miles, over 39 years, my truck does not see grass grow under its tires. the basis for road repair is under the guidence of “YES BOYS” in the dept of transportation engeineering dept. get a listen here.. trucks do not damage higways,the high way was built by yes boys who cow tail to the legislatures ideal needs. yes trucks do have a impact,literally, on the highway, when a truck hits a hole, or joint thats not aligned, its makes a rebound, and the highway dept inspectors/supervisors all know where these issues are, they report them, and nothing gets done. again, repeat, if your so aligned here in your bashing of trucks, may i suggest, dont buy anything. and stop us dead. amazon now uses this transportation scenerio for people and companies that can not wait for thier happieness level to explode. when we devised a “just in time” manufacturing scheme to,well save companies money , instead of warehousing for future needs,again, we trample a system that is inadequate. trucks are far from a problem try driving on these roads for a living, im watching the BMW class exclude us from the left lane so they can not be distracted by a damn truck,in thier way,sorry, its a public highway,and that left lane, seldom used, is a way trucks can stay out of your way, when alot of on ramps and exits are really the poroblem,in slowing traffic, i watch everyday people, in no matter what area of driving they do,have a damn phone in thier hands, and they dont care, who they kill,as long as they can use driving like a couch in thier living room. as far a bridges go, i had a few friends who were team drivers die in that bridge collapse in 6/83 on I 95 in greenwich conn. and they blamed overloaded trucks, well, its was salt air, and people in goverment who denied repairs to that bridge,and it fell in..we do not build a highway that is adequate for the masses.. a public highway, and you,do not want to share it because of your needs to be first,and screw the people who make your life easier, on demand.got a better idea?why not PPP, private,public,partnerships, like denver, where 2-3 cents a gallon over the years for road work and upkeep, no, instead they built a tolled beltway around it,and now everyone who uses it,can pay 2/5 bucks a day to go to work…if that sounds good have at it,wall street greed will thanks you for another toll way investment,like your indianan toll road,(which i just used for the first time since 20015) and ohio, new york,mass,new hampshire,is in far better shape) the indy toll road is a piece of crap..forever,,governors who spout off about taxes and the people who complain about it, should be reduced to riding the public bus…best wishes..

  19. “The only problem with this country these days is all the deadbeats who want something for nothing.”

    Almost every time you hear that complaint, it is directed at welfare recipients. As if those things people want for nothing could only be food and shelter.

    Nearly every time that complaint echos across the land it is initiated by “normal” Americans

    …who want better education for youth…but refuse to pay for it;

    who want safer water and air…but refuse to pay for it;

    who want safer airplanes…but refuse to pay for it;

    who want healthier food…but refuse to pay for it;

    and who want better infrastructure…but refuse to pay for it.

    It is worse than sad that what we Americans do want and are willing to pay for is a Banana Republic.

    I’m going to run for president on the promise that I will Make America a Banana Republic (MAABA). I think the people are ready for that.

  20. We use to make fun of the USSR because its manufacturing never included spare parts and repair as part of the process. Those citing military expenditures and our long term laxity in meeting other needs are extremely correct. What an irony for our NATIONAL DEFENSE HIGHWAY SYSTEM to be so poorly maintained. Also other elements being neglected,like rapid transit and local infrastructure need, are also a product of our militarism. We have been declared and undeclared war since 1950. The nations you mention have not. Other countries economic philosophy involves maitenance. Ours does not. The metro in DC is a mess and large parts closed for rebuild this summer. Underfunded by Congress and increasingly expensive to ride. So, much more profitable for profiteers to make profits from rebuilding than maintaining. Maintainance that was done none profit is now increasingly privatized. There is no way for profit operations can do better than for profit tax paying business. So far as Indy is concerned. For a very generous one time payment from INDOT and the General Assembly, Indianapolis pledged City maintenance of all non-interstate state highways within the beltway. That was decades ago. Bad deal for Indy citizens, but unfair to other Hoosiers to renege. After all we are taxed more for visiting Indy or donut counties in add on sales tax and entertainment taxes. And to drive there on roads that are horrendous and damage vehicles. Commercial traffic damage to roads is not compensated by there use tax payments. Other states ban commercial traffic in certain lanes and on vulnerable state highways.

  21. We use to make fun of the USSR because its manufacturing never included spare parts and repair as part of the process. Those citing military expenditures and our long term laxity in meeting other needs are extremely correct. What an irony for our NATIONAL DEFENSE HIGHWAY SYSTEM to be so poorly maintained. Also other elements being neglected,like rapid transit and local infrastructure need, are also a product of our militarism. We have been declared and undeclared war since 1950. The nations you mention have not. Other countries economic philosophy involves maitenance. Ours does not. The metro in DC is a mess and large parts closed for rebuild this summer. Underfunded by Congress and increasingly expensive to ride. So, much more profitable for profiteers to make profits from rebuilding than maintaining. Maintainance that was done none profit is now increasingly privatized. There is no way for profit operations can do better than for profit tax paying business. So far as Indy is concerned. For a very generous one time payment from INDOT and the General Assembly, Indianapolis pledged City maintenance of all non-interstate state highways within the beltway. That was decades ago. Bad deal for Indy citizens, but unfair to other Hoosiers to renege. After all we are taxed more for visiting Indy or donut counties in add on sales tax and entertainment taxes. And to drive there on roads that are horrendous and damage their vehicles.

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