Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The war in Iraq didn't bring the bridge down in Minneapolis

First of all, the Minneapolis bridge collapse represents a true tragedy for those who lost loved ones or were seriously injured. For them, the story that immediately became national news is personal. It will always be.

Make no mistake, the nation’s tax dollars would be much more meaningfully spent maintaining our highways and bridges than the way Bush and Congress have squandered billions in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are dozens of other programs that would greatly benefit if indeed the money was still to be spent somewhere when Bush stops chasing failure further down his rabbit hole in Iraq.

Yet I have to argue that it is a serious misrepresentation to even suggest the collapse is the fault of the Bush administration.

The day after the collapse, John Nichols wrote in The Nation “an obsessive focus on warmaking abroad leaves a trail of death, destruction and decay in the U.S.” In a piece written for the progressive website CommonDreams.org, attorney and peace activist Tom Turnipseed chimes in: “Unsafe highways, bridges and driving are a genuine terror threat to us all.

There are criticisms about the nation’s priorities and tax structure within both stories that are certainly valid. That’s where the hype needs to end.

The quote by Turnipseed that referenced The Center for Strategic and International Studies first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Comparing the portion of federal, state and local spending from the 1960s is very misleading. The fact is that the federal aid portion for bridge replacements and major rehabilitation is 80% for bridges that qualify according to their condition rating.

It’s that label “structurally deficient” which comes from the condition rating that has been mostly seriously misunderstood since the bridge collapse. The numbers of structurally deficient bridges across the country have been all over the news because the Minneapolis bridge carried that label for many years.

As a former bridge inspector who also spent one year assessing all of Washington State’s highest priority bridge needs, I can attest to two facts. The term structurally deficient has little to do with the actual urgency of any bridge replacement or repair. Any bridge deemed unsafe for use after an inspection would either be closed immediately or emergency repairs would be ordered. The term is merely a generalization, and in more than a few instances, highway departments stretch the definitions to get federal funds when the driving force behind a bridge replacement has nothing to do with the structural condition.

And the ability of even the most qualified inspectors will never be enough to prevent some tragic collapses from happening. In a program that defines inspection frequency in terms of one or two years, it is nearly impossible for an inspector to be on site at the right time to discover the kind of serious flaws that might progress to such points. A degree of negligence may on rare occasions play a role, but more often than not the mistakes are innocent. They are mistakes because that which we can't know is relegated to the best judgment available, which is experienced based on the thousands of other situations that weren't mistakes.

The 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on I-95 in Connecticut is one example of a failure that led to new and more rigid inspection requirements. That steel bridge also lacked redundancy. A corrosion induced crack of a steel pin connection that could not be accessed for a complete visual inspection caused the failure. Yet even with new ultrasonic testing equipment and methods there is no guarantee that such serious flaws will be detected.

The Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse four years later on the New York Throughway delivered the transportation community new lessons on bridge scour. More improvements were made to the national bridge inspection program. But it remains incredibly complex and difficult to examine the scour under a bridge pier when it is most critical, which happens to be during the worst periods of flooding.

Part of the point here is that older bridges aren’t any different than any engineered product, be it automobiles, airplanes, buildings, or pipelines. In our nation’s rush to build a world of mass convenience to facilitate our habits of mass consumption, there is a blindness to tomorrow that is related to using materials and design theories that are the best available at the time. No one can possibly gauge the magnitude of the future problems we create when the rush to build more and bigger, wider highways is always ahead of us.

Despite the American Society of Civil Engineers' report card that rates bridges a “C” (higher than all but one of the 15 categories), one must remember that every profession has its lobby. Engineers imagine a perfect world today from the present technological point of view. More, bigger and wider is work to an engineer, and that is especially handy for extracting their piece of the taxpayer pie to support their same mass consumption habit that none of us can afford to ignore.

In an ideal world, Nichols new slogan “No More Collapses” is an admirable goal. But our cultural vision of the ideal world would ask that we all escape premature death by being protected from every conceivable kind of accident, crime, disease and even natural disaster.

Which brings me to my second point. Sometimes planes crash, buildings burn, and bridges fall. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in California magnify the reality that often yesterday’s public works projects were prematurely declared successes. Time is the only true arbiter and judge for many of our engineering accomplishments.

If we look at all the evidence before we judge the present situation as a negligent failure that reveals an imposing threat to our way of life, what we’ll find is that the initial reaction needs to be tempered with caution and an overall societal responsibility. Ranting about “the war against the transportation terror in our own back yard terror” reeks of political opportunism. It is a mistaken departure from seeking the truth.

We can’t ask and shouldn’t expect the government to protect us from all possibility of death in the air, on highways, or in buildings. If we as antiwar activists honestly believe that Bush sowed the seeds of fear to sell his war and turn the country into a police state, then we mustn’t stoop to his level of abusing the truth by trying to mobilize new fears so that we can blame the administration for this tragedy. We have to be truthful first and foremost or we become like them.

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by Rich in Juneau