Excerpt: Reframing America’s Infrastructure by Marc Gravely
Bridges | Rusted & Busted
August 1, 2007 in downtown Minneapolis was a calm summer evening. At just after six p.m., the peak rush-hour traffic was moving slowly across the Interstate 35 West bridge over the Mississippi River. Opened in 1967, the eight-lane, steel truss arch bridge was Minnesota’s third-largest, serving more than 140,000 vehicles a day. Suddenly, a resounding clank was heard, and the bridge trembled. Seconds later, about 1,000 feet of the bridge collapsed, and more than 450 feet of the main span plunged 100 feet into the river and onto its banks.
Dozens of cars plunged into the water, where motorists, injured from the 10-story drop, struggled against the water filling their vehicles. Emergency crews scrambled to free them and bring them to safety. Still, other vehicles were trapped atop the fragmented bridge, including a packed school bus, as fires sparked by leaked fuel threatened immolation. When it was all over, 13 people had died, and 145 had been injured.
The I-35W collapse sent shockwaves across the country. Governor Tim Pawlenty stated, “Obviously this is a catastrophe of historic proportions for Minnesota,” but the disaster had nationwide implications. To an anxious public eager to learn the cause of the tragedy, this was not like the Cypress Freeway collapse of 1989, inflicted by a powerful earthquake. Nor was it like the I-40 bridge collapse of 2002 in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma, where a river barge had struck a support. No outside force had contacted I-35W. The structure had simply failed under normal use.
According to The New York Times, annual inspections had noted “assorted cracks, corrosion and fatigue.”1 Journalist Anderson Cooper reported, “It’s obvious there were troubling safety questions about this bridge years before the collapse.” Governor Pawlenty conceded “there were problems with the bridge, but not a recommendation to immediately close it.” He stressed that “Just because it falls into this category doesn’t mean it is necessarily unsafe.” He asked the public to be patient until investigations were complete.
Ultimately, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined a design flaw had produced a defect in the truss structure, which made its collapse inevitable. The flaw, steel support plates of only half the thickness necessary, had been overlooked forty years earlier during the bridge’s construction.
The conclusion raised a series of questions that shook the nation’s confidence in our bridge infrastructure. Was this flaw unique to I-35W, or was it common to bridges built during the 1960s? Did the age of the structure and negligent maintenance factor into the collapse? How many other bridges across the United States were compromised by defects or decrepitude, and when would the next fatal collapse occur? But though these questions were raised, they were never satisfactorily answered as the story faded from the headlines.
Fourteen years later, how are our country’s bridges faring? If you think the tragedy of I-35W led to a renaissance in bridge construction and maintenance as municipalities everywhere vowed, “Never again!”, you are an optimist. Certainly, infrastructure funding has been increased in recent years, and bridges have been prioritized. Notable projects have been completed, such as a new Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, California, and a new Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson River. But numerous sources report that our nation’s bridges remain in dangerous disrepair, suggesting the question of another commuter bridge collapse is not “if” but “when.”
Take Minnesota, for example, where we would expect a visceral response to bridge infrastructure questions. In 2017, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association reported that of Minnesota's 13,355 bridges, 800, or six percent, were structurally deficient. The state itself has identified 2,020 bridges in need of repair, which will cost about $780 million.2 The state’s most traveled structurally deficient bridge is TH 36 over Lexington Avenue in Ramsey County, where 85,000 vehicles cross per day. If Minnesota isn’t more determined to prevent another tragedy, what does that say for the rest of the country?
Infrastructure Report Card is an assessment issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers every four years. In the 2017 Report Card, ASCE assigned a grade of C+ for our nation’s bridges. But before we get too ecstatic about a “passing grade”, let’s examine some of the facts behind the letter.
“You’re not getting older, you’re getting better,” was a popular advertising slogan in the 1970s, but it hardly applies to bridges built in that era or even earlier. ASCE found that nearly 40 percent of America’s 614,387 bridges were 50 years of age and older, with the average age being 43 years. Of the total, 56,007 were rated structurally deficient, yet in 2016 Americans made 188 million trips across those structurally deficient bridges every day.
ASCE cautions that structurally deficient bridges are not necessarily unsafe, but could quickly become so and would need to be quickly shut down to prevent a tragedy. Bridges are not designed to last forever, and too many of our bridges are reaching the end of their design lifespan without a viable plan for replacement. ASCE estimates the price tag for national bridge rehabilitation at $123 billion, no small sum for a country whose national debt is $27.75 trillion and growing.
But the news is not all bad. Progress has been made over the last decade, as the percentage of structurally deficient bridges declined from 12.3 percent to 9.1 percent. Certain states are doing a better job than others in maintaining their bridges. Nevada rates best with only 1.6 percent of its bridges deficient, while Rhode Island is the worst state in the nation with 24.9 percent deficiency.
There’s also the issue of obsolescence. A bridge may be structurally sound, but if the community it serves has experienced growth since it was built, the bridge might not meet the current demands for traffic flow, especially when it comes to larger vehicles. ASCE estimates that 13.6 percent of bridges are functionally obsolete. These bridges act as traffic chokepoints, causing congestion and delays. This means economic and quality-of-life losses to the community, as well as wasted fuel harming the environment.
Let’s take a closer look at how a few states are attempting to manage their bridge infrastructure issues.
New York — Shortly after the I-35W collapse, The New York Times reported that a 2007 inspection had rated the Brooklyn Bridge approach ramps "poor."3 Echoing MN Gov. Pawlenty, a spokesman for the New York City Department of Transportation, said the bridge was not in a dangerous state but did require renovation. This assessment surprised no one. After all, the bridge had been opened in 1883, and after more than a century of continuous operation was serving 120,000 vehicles a day.
Repair work on the approaches and deck began in 2010 as part of a plan that included widening two approach ramps, raising the clearance above surface streets, seismic retrofitting, replacement of rusted railings and safety barriers, and resurfacing. Originally, the project was scheduled for completion in 2014, but work lasted until 2017. Cost also soared, from an initial budget of $508 million to $811 million.
Yet, the bridge still required additional work. Plans were made to expand the bicycle and pedestrian paths, reinforce the foundations, repair masonry arches on the approach ramps damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and renovate the suspension towers and approach ramps. This price tag exceeds $330 million, and work is expected to be completed in 2023.
During this time, the Empire State also took a major step forward with the construction of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge, a twin-span, cable-stayed overpass of the Hudson River from Tarrytown to Nyack, to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge. The cost was steep: initially budgeted at $3.98 billion for construction and administrative costs, the project finished under a cloud of litigation, as contractors claimed an additional $900 million was owed.4
Another major concern was the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. At the time of its completion in 1964, the Verrazzano was the longest suspension bridge in the world. As of 2015, its 13 lanes were servicing around 200,000 vehicles every day. Saving the Verrazzano was a major priority, and so $1.5 billion was allocated for restoration. The first stage consisted of replacing the existing upper deck sections, removing the divider on the upper deck, and adding an HOV lane, and was finished in 2017.5 Then, in August 2020, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it had completed a project restoring the Verrazzano’s tower foundation pedestals early and under budget.6
Clearly, the Empire State took the I-35W collapse to heart. All told, the state has built almost 1,300 bridges and rehabilitated more than 600 over the last decade. Yet after all this work, ASCE still scores 11 percent of New York’s bridges structurally deficient and 25 percent functionally obsolete. That means extensive spending to fix about 6,500 structures. Current estimates place the cost of repairing New York’s remaining bridges at $75 billion, no small sum for a state with a $14 billion budget deficit that has lost 37 percent of its tax revenue over the last year.7
Oklahoma — Perhaps because the disastrous I-40 collapse of 2002 appeared to be a freak accident, Oklahoma has not acted with the urgency citizens have a right to expect from a state with 15 percent structurally deficient bridges. On the morning of May 23 of the year, a towboat pulling a barge on the Arkansas River caused the barge to collide with the pier supporting the bridge structure. The incident occurred when the captain of the towboat experienced a “syncopal episode,” which caused him to lose consciousness. A 550-foot span of the bridge plummeted into the river. Delays in stopping traffic prolonged the tragedy, as several more passenger vehicles and semi-trucks drove off the edge. When it was over, 14 people were dead, and 11 more had been injured.
Today, Oklahoma has more than 23,000 bridges, and almost 3,500 are considered structurally unsound. Ironically, the most traveled span is another stretch of I-40 over Crooked Oak Creek in Oklahoma City, where more than 87,000 vehicles cross each day. In its defense, Oklahoma has made great strides over the past five years, decreasing its number of structurally deficient bridges by 753, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.8
Rhode Island — The smallest state in the Union has the highest percentage of structurally deficient bridges in the country. Thus, The Ocean State earned a D- for bridge infrastructure from ASCE in 2019. ASCE estimates that 4 million residents and nonresidents pass over those bridges each day. Rhode Island is seeking to reverse decades of neglect with a program called RhodeWorks,9 encompassing the repair of 150 structurally deficient bridges, as well as preventative maintenance on 500 more. The state hopes to generate sufficient funding from tolls on large commercial trucks and grants from the 2015 FAST Act. RhodeWorks is part of a larger plan to jumpstart the state’s faltering economy and ease the pain of an $800 million, COVID-induced shortfall.
California — On October 17, 1989, the San Francisco Bay Area was poised for the third game of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics. The A’s had taken the first two games of what had been dubbed the Bay Bridge Series after the structure connecting the rival cities. But now the series had shifted to Candlestick Park and Giants fans were hoping that home-field advantage would bring a change of luck. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
On a crisp, clear afternoon, at 5:04 pm, the earth trembled as an intense seismic shock hit the Santa Cruz Mountains in the vicinity of Loma Prieta Peak and rolled out in all directions. The earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale hit San Francisco hard, interrupting the pregame television broadcast and canceling the evening’s game when chunks of Candlestick Park rained down on the ground. The Bay Bridge was also hit hard when a 76-by-50-foot section of the upper deck fell onto the deck below, killing one person.
Across the bay, the damage was even worse, as the double decks of Cypress Street Viaduct of Interstate 880 crumbled for a mile and a quarter, crushing dozens of vehicles. Fuel fires started in the wreckage. According to ABCNews7.com,10 “a witness at the time said, ‘You could hear voices. You could hear voices screaming, 'help me, help me, help me,' until the fires just start, poof, and then you don't hear them no more.’" The collapse killed 42 commuters and injured many more.
Eighty-nine hours after the collapse, rescue and recovery workers were rewarded. Within a car crushed to three feet in height, a 57-year-old Longshoreman, Buck Helms, responded to a passing flashlight with a gesture that said he was still alive. Helms was freed from his vehicle and placed in an ambulance amidst cheering and clapping. To Bay Area residents, his survival seemed emblematic of their losses and their hopes. For a month and a day, Helms struggled to recover but finally succumbed to his injuries.
Reconstruction of the Cypress freeway would not be completed until 2001. The Bay Bridge was closed for a month for repairs. That process also revealed serious problems that had to be addressed sooner rather than later. Yet, the saga of the Bay Bridge would last for decades. and the costs would be staggering.
The ASCE 2019 Infrastructure Report Card for California notes that the Golden State has made progress “over the past decade to increase the percentage of California bridges in good condition and to reduce the number that are classified as structurally deficient (SD).”11 As a result, “California has fewer SD bridges than the national average,” and there is optimism that “passage of the Road and Repair Accountability Act (SB 1)” will allow that good work to continue. However, about half of the state’s bridges have exceeded their design life and suffer from backlogged maintenance. Given the fault lines zig-zagging throughout the state, a great deal of urgent work remains, especially as it relates to seismic retrofitting to improve safety in the event of an earthquake.
California is home to the nation’s top 14 most-traveled, structurally deficient bridges, the foremost of which is the Interstate 110 bridge over Los Angeles County's Dominguez Channel, serving 274,000 vehicles a day.12 California also ranks second nationally in the percentage of “functionally obsolete” (FO) bridges, and is among the worst states for bridges whose deck area is in poor condition. This means that some of the state’s largest bridges — along I-5 in San Diego, Highway 101 in Los Angeles, and I-80 in Sacramento — need major rehabilitation. How capable is California — reeling under a two-year deficit of $54.3 billion,13 and a projected revenue decline of 22.3 percent for 2020-2114 — of martialing the resources necessary to face this crisis?
That question brings us back to the Bay Bridge saga.15 In the years after Loma Prieta, officials developed an economic plan to retrofit the bridge, but that planning came to a screeching halt with the Northridge quake of 1994. Suddenly, 6.9 shakers were twice-a-decade events, so entirely replacing the eastern span of the Bay Bridge seemed a more prudent course. It would take three more years before the California legislature finally allocated $1.3 billion for that project, but the debate raged on.
Critics decried the “vanilla structure,” calling the viaduct design a “freeway on stilts.” How could such a blandly functional trestle exist in the very shadow of the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge? Perish the thought! In 1997, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) decided it would be acceptable to raise tolls to build a more aesthetically pleasing bridge, so the call went out for more artistic designs. The process dragged on, as every politician had an opinion and some square of turf to defend. It wasn’t until 1998 that the MTC chose a design featuring a 525-foot tower and the longest self-anchored suspension span in the world. The cost of the bridge was then estimated at $1.5 billion to be completed by 2004, a full 15 years since Loma Prieta had revealed urgent structural problems.
Yet, for myriad reasons, each pettier than the last, construction had not even begun by 2001. Meanwhile, the cost had nearly doubled to $2.6 billion, and the deadline had been extended to 2007. Then the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11, 2001 impacted the cost, as insurance premiums for landmark structures soared.
Delays continued, and by 2004 steel prices rose 50 percent. The bridge cost rose to $5.6 billion and Caltrans had to return to the Legislature to beg for more funding. By that time, Arnold Schwarzenegger had become governor by virtue of star power and a vague promise to manage resources responsibly. He demanded that Caltrans simplify the project, perhaps reconsidering the “freeway on stilts.” By 2005, the functionalists and the aesthetics reached a compromise that kept the “signature span” design, at a new estimated price tag of $6.3 billion. So much for reining in costs.
Over the next seven years, the cost went up another $100 million, but the bridge finally opened in September 2013. Almost 24 years had elapsed since the Loma Prieta quake had revealed the need for immediate action. Clearly, if California is to address its infrastructure needs responsibly, its officials must learn from this debacle.
Washington and Oregon — Bridge repair is hard enough when the structure resides within a single state, but interstate bridges pose greater challenges because two state bureaucracies must come to an agreement. Such is the case of the Columbia River Interstate Bridge on I-5 connecting Portland, Oregon with Vancouver, Washington. The I-5 Bridge is actually two structures, one opened in 1917, which now carries northbound traffic, and a twin opened in 1958, which carries southbound vehicles.16 Together, these bridges handle more than 130,000 vehicles a day. In 2019, ASCE graded Oregon an overall C- with a C for bridges;17 Washington’s latest grade as a C overall and a C+ for bridges.18 The I-5 Bridge is emblematic of each state’s infrastructure struggles and its saga shows the difficulty of negotiating reconstruction across state lines.
The I-5 Bridge is functionally obsolete, with the sufficiency ratings of 18.3 percent for the original span and 49.4 percent for the second span, and is regarded as the worst bottleneck for traffic on the I-5 corridor, which stretches from Mexico to Canada. The two states have been kicking around proposals for a replacement bridge, dubbed the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, since 2005.
Costs were originally estimated at $2 billion, but climbed steadily to $3.4 billion in 2012, though an independent assessment in 2010 set the cost closer to $10 billion. The project was canceled in June 2013, when Washington’s legislature refused to authorize funding. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program was relaunched in 2019 with assistance from the federal government. As of this writing, 16 years have elapsed since the 2005 decision to replace the spans with still no groundbreaking. The two states seem determined to prove that California is no outlier.
But while we’re discussing motor vehicle crossings, we must also bear in mind the potential danger of pedestrian walkway collapses. Technically, the deadliest bridge collapse in U.S. history was the failure of the Hyatt-Regency walkways in Kansas City, Missouri on July 17, 1981.19 Guests had gathered on the walkways, about 40 on the second and 20 or so on the fourth floor, overlooking the lobby, where some 1,600 guests were enjoying a Tea Dance. At 7:00 pm, the structures gave way in an avalanche of concrete, steel, glass and bodies. A damaged sprinkler system gushed water onto the scene. Rescue crews responded to the atrium, which was described as a war zone, and worked for 14 hours to free injured parties from the rubble. When it was over, 114 guests had perished and 200 more were injured.
Construction of the hotel had only begun three years earlier. How could such a disaster have happened? An investigation by structural engineers discovered shocking negligence: design changes made on the fly, over the phone without due consideration, had rendered the walkways dangerously unsafe.
A similar, though less deadly, incident occurred just three years ago, when a pedestrian bridge, still under construction, collapsed in Miami, crushing eight vehicles, killing six people and injuring 10 more. The bridge was designed to connect Florida International University with the town of Sweetwater.20 An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that calculation errors, as well as an engineer’s failure to grasp the implications of cracks in the structure, had caused the tragedy. NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt also blamed the lack of “public safety oversight" that allowed the university to manage the project without a state Transportation Department inspector on-site.
Urban planners view pedestrian walkways as important tools to protect pedestrians from the dangers of fast-moving traffic. As municipalities build additional walkways, design and construction flaws must be addressed to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.
But returning to our main topic of discussion, what is the remedy for our substandard bridge infrastructure? The ASCE 2017 Report Card lists several recommendations on how to “raise the grade”:
- Increase funding for bridge rehabilitation and repair from all levels of government
- Adopt smart designs based on maintenance and rehabilitation costs across the bridge’s entire lifecycle
- Raise the federal gas tax and tie future increases to inflation to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund
- Re-evaluate state funding mechanisms to ensure sufficient investment in bridges
- States and the federal government should find long-term funding solutions outside of taxes, including perhaps mileage-based user fees
By now, it should be evident that bridge maintenance costs are inevitable and predictable, and that failure to maintain bridges in good working order is not an option. Government agencies must budget for bridge maintenance, and the fairest way to get dedicated funds is through bridge tolls. Funding maintenance through tolls ensures that bridge users are the ones paying for repairs.
Unfortunately, too many states use bridge tolls to raise revenue for unrelated expenditures, in essence stiffing the bridges, and forcing bridge agencies to lobby state legislators for funding whenever a structural problem rears its ugly head. In New York, for example, bridge and tunnel tolls provide 12 percent of the revenue for the operation of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, but the MTA only allots four percent of its budget for bridges and tunnels.21 This system allowed decades of maintenance to be deferred until New York faced a crisis of decrepitude with several of its structures. As long as bridges are shorted on their toll revenue, there will be maintenance shortfalls that endanger the public. Immediate reforms are sorely needed.
- When a Bridge Falls: Disaster in Minneapolis | Retro Report | The New York Times (YouTube video)
- Simpson, Ian. “Almost 56,000 U.S. Bridges Structurally Deficient, Report Says.” Inforum, 15 Feb. 2017, 12pm, Electronically published. (link)
- Chan, Sewell. “Brooklyn Bridge Is One of 3 With Poor Rating.” City Room Blog, The New York Times, 2 Aug., 2007. 15 Feb. 2017, 2:53 pm, Electronically published. (link)
- More Evidence Emerges that Mario M Cuomo Bridge Faces Budgetary Risks (link)
- Katinas, Paula (March 26, 2016). “Verrazano Bridge repair work brings lane closure until 2017.” Brooklyn Eagle. (link)
- Verrazano Narrows Bridge Tower Pedestals Restored Ahead of Schedule (link)
- New York Has Lost A Greater Share Of Revenue Than Most States Due To COVID-19 (link)
- 230,000 U.S. Bridges Need Repair, New Analysis of Federal Data Finds (link)
- Rhode Island Department of Transporation (link)
- 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake: Cypress Freeway collapse survivor Buck Helms remembered by Caltrans rescuer (link)
- 2019 Report Card for California’s Infrastructure (link)
- Simpson, Ian. “Almost 56,000 U.S. Bridges Structurally Deficient, Report Says.” Inforum, 15 Feb. 2017, 12pm, Electronically published. (link)
- California ‘Wall of Debt’ Returns as State Bets on Federal Aid (link)
- Fiscal Impacts of COVID-19 and California’s Economy (link)
- Why the New Bay Bridge Cost $6.4 Billion (link)
- Wood Wortman, Sharon; Wortman, Ed (2006). The Portland Bridge Book (3rd ed.). Urban Adventure Press. pp. 107–112. ISBN 0-9787365-1-6.
- 2019 Oregon Infrastructure Report Card (link)
- 2019 Report Card for Washington's Infrastructure (link)
- Understanding the Tragic Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse (link)
- Design errors draw blame in collapse of FIU pedestrian bridge that killed 6 (link)
- New York MTA Spending (link)