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What Bridge Collapse in Wash. State Says About Health of U.S. Infrastructure

May 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The collapse of a bridge on Washington state's Interstate-5 has refocused the nation's attention on the state of its ailing transportation infrastructure. Gwen Ifill discusses the deficiencies and potential solutions with Casey Dinges of the American Society of Civil Engineers and infrastructure analyst Dan McNichol.

GWEN IFILL: The recent collapse of a vital but aging bridge in the Pacific Northwest is raising some big questions about just how safe other bridges and structures are in this day and age.

Vehicles plunged into the water, beams collapsed, and three people were injured last week when this bridge over Washington State’s Skagit River suddenly gave way.

DEBORAH HERSMAN, Chairwoman, National Transportation Safety Board: You can see that the concrete section of that dropped span has slid off of its girders like icing sliding off of a cake.

GWEN IFILL: The collapse of a 160-foot chunk of the bridge made for spectacular pictures that refocused the nation’s attention on the state of its transportation infrastructure.

The National Transportation Safety Board, chaired by Debbie Hersman, is investigating the failure, which occurred after a portion of the span was hit by a truck.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: At the end of the day, why we are here is to figure out what happened, why it happened, and to issue recommendations to prevent it from happening again.

GWEN IFILL: The government’s National Bridge Inventory had rated the Skagit River bridge as “functionally obsolete,” outdated, but not necessarily unsafe. Hundreds of similar bridges dot the national landscape.

In 2007, the Interstate 35 bridge that carried traffic over the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and Saint Paul also collapsed suddenly, killing 13 people and injuring 145. It had been classified “structurally deficient.”

By last year, nearly a quarter of the nation’s 607,000 bridges were classified as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The Federal Highway Administration reports that figure has actually dropped by more than 16,000 since 2005, but the Obama administration has repeatedly pressed Congress to increase spending on bridges and roads.


GWEN IFILL: In March, the president visited the Port of Miami.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: We have still got too many roads that are in disrepair, too many bridges that aren’t safe. We don’t have to accept that for America. We can do better. We can build better.

GWEN IFILL: But Republicans, led by House Speaker John Boehner, have resisted spending more unless it’s paid for.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: It’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus and talk about all these things you want to give away, but, at some point, somebody’s got to pay the bill.

GWEN IFILL: Federal officials estimate it would take about $20 billion dollars a year to address all of the nation’s bridge problems over each of 15 years. That’s about eight billion dollars more than federal, state and local governments spend now.

We take up some of the questions raised by all this now with two people who watch this field. Casey Dinges is the senior managing director of the American Society of Civil Engineers. And Dan McNichol is infrastructure analyst and writer. He studied the collapse of the Minnesota bridge and has been writing the history of the newly rebuilt San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Welcome to you both.

How serious, Casey Dinges, are these deficiencies?

CASEY DINGES, Senior Managing Director, American Society of Civil Engineers: Well, looking at the broader infrastructure, ASCE released a report card of the nation’s infrastructure — infrastructure this year and gave an overall grade of a D-plus, which is a marginal improvement from the letter grade D that we issued in 2009.

But as President Obama indicated at the Port of Miami recently, still not a great grade. There’s a lot of work to be done. In the case of bridges, the grade actually went up since 2009. Your setup piece showed nicely there’s been improvement, reduction in the number of structurally deficient bridges across the country. Nevertheless, we still have 65,000 structurally deficient bridges in this country and 85,000 functionally obsolete bridges. So, there’s still work to be done.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol, maybe you could help us with these definitions here.

We know about functionally — what, fracture critical is one, and then there is structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. What’s the difference? It all sounds bad to me.

DAN MCNICHOL, Author, “The Roads That Built America”: Well …

And it can be very bad.

The functionally obsolete means, if it were rebuilt today, they wouldn’t built it like they did when they first built it. It’s just out of state. It’s historically not up to snuff. Structurally — structurally deficient is a whole ‘nother category that tends to be more serious. If the bridge is in disrepair, if it’s going to fall or collapse or anywhere near it, it’s going to have a structurally deficient category.

And then, lastly, if you think about fracture critical, any bridge that has a minimal design where, if one piece fails, it all fails, that’s fracture critical.

GWEN IFILL: And that’s what we saw happen in Washington State?

DAN MCNICHOL: That’s right.

CASEY DINGES: If I could add one thing to what Dan said about fracture critical …


CASEY DINGES: … it’s not every piece on a fracture critical bridge. There are certain elements of that bridge that are critical, and if they fail, there’s risk of greater failure of the structure.

So, the bridge was fracture critical. It was also functionally obsolete. But we’re very early into this NTSB investigation.

And I hearken back to the Minneapolis bridge in 2007. In the first few days and weeks after that collapsed, we knew nothing about gusset plates. And yet that ended up being …

GWEN IFILL: Gusset plates.

CASEY DINGES: Gusset plates are pieces of metal that help connect together different beams and girders on the bridge. And it was a design flaw in one of those gusset plates that brought that bridge down. So …

GWEN IFILL: In the early day, Dan McNichol, we heard the governor of the state of Washington say, hey, listen, if a truck hadn’t hit this bridge, basically, that’s what caused this problem.

So, when we look at these kinds of weaknesses, are we talking about accidents? Are we talking about maintenance that’s been deferred? Or are we just talking about age?

DAN MCNICHOL: All of the above.

Most of the bridges in the United States have been neglected as far as maintenance goes. I’m a fan of the DOTs. And they do remarkable work in maintaining their structures with the resources they have. But every DOT would like to have more money to put at fixing these bridges.

And when you look at bridge like the I-5 bridge, sure you can say it’s older. You can say that a truck hit it and it shouldn’t have, but it’s part of the U.S. interstate system. And those red, white, and blue shielded highways are our king, are the top of the food chain when it comes to transportation and logistics.

And if we have neglected — in a short time, in seven years, we have seen two major bridge collapses that indicate that we have neglected our system as a whole. And when the chief system of transportation and supply chains has been neglected, there’s great concern that the other lesser bridges have been neglected even more so.

GWEN IFILL: Casey Dinges, let’s talk about what we should be doing as a result. Should — can these structures be shored up, the ones we have identified, or should they just be replaced?

CASEY DINGES: Engineers will make that call and advise their DOTs on that, in some cases, just greater maintenance, in some cases, rehabilitation, in some cases, outright replacement.

North of New York City, the Tappan Zee Bridge, a major structure, is being replaced. So, sometimes, you have to go all the way with that. The public needs to be engaged on this. Congress over the next 12 months will have to look at a reauthorization of the federal transportation programs. They have to look at funding issues.

That’s — you know, that is center stage right now. And the Highway Trust Fund, which is where user fees are collected in this country that pay for our federal programs, that trust fund will go bankrupt by the end of next year.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol, you pay attention to these issues when people — when bridges are not collapsing, when the public attention is not necessarily focused on them. Do you detect that there is a will either in local government, federal government, or even among individuals to do what it takes? It’s a very costly project.

DAN MCNICHOL: That’s right.

Bridges are celebrated in this country. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, we love our structures, we love our bridges. But there’s been serious neglect and there’s been serious decay in will, the political will.

But I feel when we’re now at a point where we’re starting to see people become educated — politicians don’t lead. The public leads. And when they demand better bridges and better maintenance and a different culture in maintaining our vital structures, then we will see change. And I believe we have begun to see that change, which is very exciting.

GWEN IFILL: Is that change likely to come, Casey Dinges, from maybe the private sector more than the public sector at this point?

CASEY DINGES: There’s a lot of discussion about the private sector investing more in infrastructure. You have seen that in other parts of the world.

Europe and Asia, public-private partnerships are more common. And to add to what Dan just said, and to your question, the state and local governments are stepping up more. We have seen recently the state of Virginia made a big move on transportation after 30 years of doing nothing.

Maryland has done something. Even the state of Washington is looking at a 10 cent increase in its gas taxes right now to handle structurally deficient bridges. The state of Wyoming passed a gas tax increase this year. So, the states are starting to step up on this.

GWEN IFILL: How about tolls, for instance, Dan McNichol? Is that another solution, where it literally comes out of our pockets every time we use the roads or the bridges?


You hear politicians on both sides of the aisle say we need to increase our spending. And that money has got to come from somewhere. People have drawn a line in the sand about not raising the federal gas taxes. Maybe some states will continue to raise their taxes, but that means tolling. That means private money. That means public money, but it means certainly tolling.

I just drove across the United States in the last — over the Memorial Day weekend, literally from San Francisco to Boston, and I was only tolled in Chicago, Indiana, and Ohio. That says something. We’re really on a free ride that’s coming to a quick end, I believe.

GWEN IFILL: As we look at these kinds of accidents or these kinds of episodes, as we saw in Washington State and a few — five years ago and — six years ago, I guess now, in Minnesota, how long do these investigations take and how important are they for deciding what happens next?

CASEY DINGES: They take, I will say, maybe up to 12 months, although the NTSB is very good at educating the public as it goes along.

And in the case of the Minnesota bridge, it let on that it was focusing on the gusset plate and a possible design issue early on in the investigation. And in terms of a replacement bridge, I think governor of Washington has said he hopes to have something in place by the middle of June. In the case of — a temporary replacement bridge.

A permanent replacement bridge, in the case of Minnesota, I think it took just a little over a year to do that.

DAN MCNICHOL: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: So maybe it won’t take as long as it took you to drive across the country, Dan McNichol?

DAN MCNICHOL: No, it shouldn’t. And that’s exactly right.

It took 13 months on an accelerated schedule to build the new Minnesota bridge. And it became a beautiful bridge, an icon. And, often, engineering is about learning from failures. And this could be another case in point.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol, who wrote “The Roads That Built America,” and Casey Dinges with the American Society of Civil Engineers, thank you.

DAN MCNICHOL: Thank you.