The US's Ramshackle Infrastructure When Will the Next Bridge Collapse?

The Minneapolis bridge disaster is no isolated incident but a warning signal: More than 160,000 road bridges in the USA are considered to be in danger of collapse. Highways, tunnels, dams and dykes are in such miserable condition that engineers have long been ringing the alarm -- so far in vain.

By in New York


Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.
AP Photo/Star Tribune, Jeff Wheeler

Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis is just a symptom of a much bigger problem.

On April 5, 1987 the Schoharie Creek Bridge in New York state collapsed. The 35-meter-wide highway bridge had only recently been examined. Nevertheless it suddenly gave way, caved in and fell crashing into the river. Five vehicles fell into the river 25 meters below, and ten people died.

The tragic sequence of events bears grisly similarities to the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis Wednesday, more than 20 years later. The causes of the accident also seem identical after the preliminary investigation: Wear and tear, obsolescence, carelessness, sloppiness.

It doesn't surprise experts. "The crumbling state of our infrastructure poses a real threat to public safety and the nation's economy," Bill Marcuson, the president of the American Society Of Civil Engineers (ASCE), wrote on his ASCE blog just a few days before the most recent disaster. "Financing the urgently needed repairs must become a priority for our nation's leaders." In total, ASCE calculates, at least $1.6 trillion must be invested in order to avoid further disasters like the one that happened this week in Minneapolis.

Take America's bridges, for example. Two years ago, ASCE produced a "report card" evaluating the US's entire crumbling infrastructure, giving it miserable grades -- and road and highway bridges came off the worst. To that extent, the assurances of dignitaries in the wake of the latest disaster, like Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman's assertion that "We must ensure that a catastrophe like the one that happened today never occurs again," sound like cynical populism.

In the 2005 report, the ASCE rated 160,570 road bridges in the USA (27.1 percent) as "structurally deficient or functionally obsolete" as of 2003 -- in other words, in danger of collapse. Nevertheless, the ASCE added that that was an improvement over 2000, when 28.5 percent of all bridges were unsatisfactory.

Urban bridges are in the worst condition, with almost one-third of bridges in cities being deficient. Among other things, that is because of the fact that the respective city administrations are responsible for these bridges, and not the US freeway authority, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The FHWA wants to reduce the number of defective bridges to under 25 percent by next year. Then, as ASCE boss Marcuson points out, only every fourth bridge would be unsatisfactory -- hardly a reassuring state of affairs. Repairing all of America's bridges would take at least 20 years and would eat up some $10 billion -- money which no one wants to spend.

Miserable Highway Infrastructure

The US freeways got the miserable grade "D" from the ASCE. Around 332,000 kilometers of highways cross the US, most of them built in the 1950s. Hundreds of highways are maintained with the help of toll charges. Nevertheless bad road conditions, potholes, cracked asphalt and broken road surfaces cost US drivers a total of $54 billion each year -- $275 per motorist -- in terms of extra vehicle repairs and operating costs caused by driving on roads in need of repair.

Many drivers miss disasters by a hair's breadth. After a truck accident in Oakland in California on April 29 in which a fire broke out, a highway overpass melted and concrete slabs weighing tons fell on the roadway underneath. Fortunately the debacle happened in the early hours of the morning and not in the middle of the rush hour, and only one man was seriously injured.

The US government currently spends approximately $60 billion annually on highway repairs. But according to the ASCE's calculations, that is far too little: It reckons the necessary investments at nearly $100 billion. In addition, the White House recently forecast that the federal Highway Trust Fund -- a pool of money used to finance maintenance of the highway system, raised by a federal tax of 18.3 cents per gallon on gasoline -- would have a shortfall of around $4 billion by 2009. And that's a conservative estimate, if you listen to the Democrats.

Incompetence

America's road tunnels are not in any better condition -- even the brand new ones. On July 11, 2006, several 12-ton cement ceiling tiles in the "Big Dig" tunnel under Boston's downtown, which had opened at the beginning of 2006, fell down, killing one driver. The ceiling collapse was not an absurd accident, as the authorities first portrayed it, but was caused by incompetence. Since then, the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency responsible for investigating transportation accidents, have found out that the accident was caused by inferior quality building materials, sloppy work on the part of the construction firms, and carelessness on the part of the local highways department, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The situation is much worse with the approximately 83,000 dams and dykes in the US. The catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, which two years ago brought down the inadequate dyke system around New Orleans and caused over 1,800 deaths, revealed problems which are not limited to storm-prone Louisiana. According to the ASCE, the number of "unsafe" dams and dykes has increased by a third to over 3,500 country-wide since 1998. Worryingly, "the number of dams identified as unsafe is increasing at a faster rate than those being repaired," according to the ASCE.

Between 1999 and 2006 alone, 129 dams failed in the USA. Around 1,000 "dam incidents," which alert engineers to deficiencies that threaten the safety of a dam, were reported on top of that. Rural states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio are in the most danger. The Ka Loko dam on the Hawaiian island of Kauai burst in March 2006, killing seven people. The dam at Lake Cumberland in Kentucky could only be prevented from bursting in January 2007 at the last minute by lowering the water level.

The ASCE's list of defects continues. The US's completely overloaded airports get a “D+” grade. The ramshackle drinking water system get the grade "D-" with the ASCE writing that "America faces a shortfall of $11 billion annually to replace aging facilities and comply with safe drinking water regulations." The electric power grid, which is "in urgent need of modernization," likewise gets a "D."

The pitiful state of the country's infrastructure became clear once again on July 18 in Manhattan, when an underground steam pipe at 41st Street and Lexington Avenue near Grand Central Terminal exploded. One woman died, and the driver of a tow truck suffered scalding on over 80 percent of his skin and has been in a coma since then.

A privatization of America's infrastructure has recently been discussed as a possible solution to the crisis. Banks and private equity companies have already begun to hustle for a piece of the lucrative cake. According to BusinessWeek, public facilities with a value of $100 billion could be transferred to private ownership within the next two years. "There's a lot of value trapped in these assets," Mark Florian, head of North American infrastructure banking at Goldman Sachs, told BusinessWeek.

He's not wrong. Take for instance the Indiana Toll Road, which crosses the north of the US state of Indiana as part of the I-80 and I-90 highways and opened in 1956. Last year the Indiana state government handed it over to the Spanish-Australian Cintra-Macquarie consortium in the form of a 75-year leasing contract, for which the government received $3.85 billion. It's an investment which will repay Cintra-Macquarie generously: According to one conservative estimate, the consortium can expect profits of $21 billion from leasing the toll road over the life of the contract.

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