Nation’s Bridge Infrastructure Still Shaky One Year After I-35 Collapse in Minnesota

Just one year after the catastrophic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minnesota, it isn’t a matter of whether another bridge will crumble, but when, according to an infrastructure expert. The danger goes beyond the mere safety of individuals traveling on that bridge, but also to the infrastructure of the nation’s business environment, too.

“Infrastructure is the backbone of our whole commercial world. It keeps us competitive around the globe by moving products and people safely,” Barry B. LePatner, founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates L.L.P., which advises on business and legal issues affecting real estate, design, and construction industries, as well as the author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America ‘s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry, told CPN.

The Minnesota bridge tragedy may not be an isolated event. LePatner said there are 600,000 bridges across the country and statistics show that one in four are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient. The funds allocated federally for these more than half-million bridges comes out to about $3,500 per bridge for maintenance and inspection, he said. “That means if they are structurally deficient, they can no longer handle the original design load capacity,” he explained. “The number of lanes used needs to be reduced. If it is functionally obsolete, it means that no proper maintenance has been done for many years and we if continue that way, that bridge will be structurally deficient.”

In the year since the bridge collapse, the nation has not changed policies or increased the maintenance – or even the money allocated for maintenance – for bridges across the country, LePatner added.“I do not think it is going to make much of a difference,” he said. “Politicians at local and federal levels have acknowledged that the subject is bigger than they can handle.”

So, is anyone doing it right? “The best example is New York City,” LePatner said. “We had deteriorating bridges which served millions of people for decades with not a penny put to them. Then came the late 1990s and for the first time, had a huge surplus. To the credit to the people at the state government level, they spent $3 billion dollars to bring bridges and roads up to standards and every year since they’ve applied $500 million for maintenance and repairs.”

The challenge now as the economy is struggling, the entities are going into a period where the financial commitments won’t be backed up by tax revenues, he said. Talks about a national infrastructure bank, private/public partnerships and committing more road and gas taxes to this critical need are all there, but no single thing will meet the needs, he said, it must be a combination.

“All of the engineers have told me and what I’ve been telling audiences all over the nation that if you understand the dynamics of what happens to a bridge that doesn’t get regular maintenance over decades, then it is not a question of whether, but a question of when bridges will collapse,” he said. “Bridges are your like grandmother’s wicker chair that she gave you and you left out in the rain. There are probably some slats broken and you realize you can sit on it one day and then next you’ll fall through the wicker. You cannot reverse the process unless you do the right remediation.”