photo by Chris Light
Whenever I drive to or from my firm’s office in Stamford, Connecticut, I cross the Interstate 95 bridge over the Mianus River in nearby Greenwich. And virtually every time, I think about the night in 1983 when part of that bridge gave way.
The highway, only technically named the Connecticut Turnpike today, was still a toll road at the time. Though it had opened only 25 years earlier, on the night of June 28, 1983, part of the bridge dropped into the river, quickly taking two cars and two semi-trailers with it. Another car drove into the gap before an alert motorist flagged traffic to a halt. Three people died, several more were injured, and the road was closed for several weeks.
Just a month after the disaster, my new bride and I traversed a quickly reinforced temporary span across the river, en route to our honeymoon in Block Island, Rhode Island. Even 35 years later, I don’t recall that I have ever crossed the Mianus River on I-95 since then without thinking of that night.
Nearly a quarter-century after the I-95 failure, history repeated and outdid itself when the I-35W bridge collapsed during evening rush hour in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, killing 13 and injuring around 145 more. I was nowhere near this disaster; I saw it on the television news during a business trip to Nova Scotia. But the memories came back anyway. For me, at least, bridge failures will always hit pretty close to home. This has become even more literal in recent weeks, as investigators apply the experience gained in pinpointing the cause of the 2007 Minnesota bridge failure to uncovering the reasons for a pedestrian bridge collapse this March in Miami, not far from my home in Fort Lauderdale.
These things are preventable, and since they are so rare, they are demonstrably prevented – for the most part. But even one bridge failure is one too many. That is why, under federal pressure, Mississippi’s governor acted last week to close more than 100 crossings in his state.
Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency after the federal National Bridge Inspection Standards and the Mississippi Office of State Aid Road Construction found 83 local and county bridges were in dangerous condition. The day after Bryant’s initial announcement, the agencies revised their count up to 102. The governor’s office explained that the state of emergency was necessary because many local governments had previously found the bridges to be dangerous but had not yet acted to close them. The U.S. Transportation Department warned that leaving the bridges open could put the state at risk of losing federal funds.
The Federal Highway Administration found that 7,317 of Mississippi’s 17,072 bridges needed some level of repair. The governor’s emergency declaration is worded so that more bridges may be added later to the closing list developed by the state’s Transportation Department and its Office of State Aid Road Construction. The order may also expand beyond the 16 counties initially cited.
In the wake of both the Connecticut and Minnesota disasters, governments put new emphasis on bridge safety and developed new funding sources to make it a priority. But as time has passed, Connecticut has found itself financially strapped and has tapped into those maintenance funds. Nationally, bridges and other infrastructure have been deteriorating for a long time. I take the construction industry’s regular warnings about the condition of American highways with a grain of road salt, considering the financial self-interest involved. But potholes generally don’t kill people; bridge failures do. So when, for example, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association says that 55,710 bridges nationwide need to be repaired or replaced, it is worth paying attention.
The bottom line is that politics and politicians have a built-in bias against keeping existing infrastructure in good shape, whether it is bridges, subways, sewers or water mains. Nobody gets their picture taken at a ribbon-cutting for a pipe repair or a bridge renovation. Shiny new trains, bridges and buildings bring bigger electoral bang for the taxpayer’s buck. New buildings also mean new offices for the public employees who are elected officials’ workmates, and often their political volunteers as well. It isn’t that public officials are evil or indifferent to the safety of the general public; it’s just that the institutional biases are powerful and deeply embedded.
So we have to fight these biases. Nobody wins votes by closing bridges. If the feds have to prod governors to do so, or if governors have to strong-arm or override local officials, then sometimes that is just going to be necessary. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate or, in my case, to forget.