I wanted to believe that the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis would spark a renaissance in infrastructure maintenance.
To any causal observer, it has. There are bills in Congress, inspections by Caltrans and panel discussiosn on the radio talking about this terrible problem of how our highways, bridges, levees and aqueducts are so badly looked after that a major bridge can pitch commuters into the Mississippi during rush hour.
It isn’t the first time a big bridge has collapsed, and legislatures have been spurred to action, boldly proclaiming their commitment to infrastructure upkeep, I was told today by Richard Little, director of the University of Southern California’s Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy.
He might as well be Chicken Little, for all the good warnings from his colleagues are likely to accomplish.
The institute did a survey of transportation policy types to see what their big infrastructure worries were, and (are you sitting down?) they said it was a lack of money for infrastructure.
No, they didn’t say they were worried about interstate bridges collapsing.
“That was pure serendipity. We had kind of done the survey and we had written up the results and we were just about to do the release, when …”
Suddenly, it wasn’t just a minor wonk-fest. A bridge was down. People were dead. A nation wanted to know how this could happen.
“The prevailing thought is that you build it and it lasts forever,” Little told me. “Unfortunately, it’s not like the pyramids.”
Or maybe, I suggested, it’s like the pyramids with 42 million car trips a year across them.
The problem is, our pharohs don’t get much credit from us, their voting subjects, for keeping up those pyramids. We just want to see newer and bigger pyramids, ones that will make our trip to work faster or our cities more postcard-perfect.
It’s like painting a big steel bridge, which you need to do regularly to prevent corrosion.
“By the time you get done painting and scraping and get from one side to the other, you have to go back and start again,” Little explained.
It’s like going to the gym. You go for six months, you get in shape, you’re looking good and then it kicks in: I’ve got to keep going forever to keep this body together like this.
What’s worse is that keeping those bridges inspected and painted and whatnot costs a lot of money.
“Lots of people want to build things that can be built after themselves,” Little said, “but nobody wants to build the Erik Nelson Bridge Maintenance Fund.”
Really? I’m hurt. But seriously, they’ll do it now that the bridge has collapsed, right?
“If nothing else, its’s a teachable moment. We’ve got this time of public awareness,” in which people and politicians are talking and even taking action about maintaining infrastructure.
But it’s like deja vu for Little and his colleagues.
Back in the 1980s, there were similar bridge collapses, most notably the I-95 bridge over the Mianus River in Connecticut, killing three in 1983 because of corrosion and maintenance that had been put off. Then the New York State Thruway fell into the Schoharie Creek in 1987, killing 10.
“Is this going to actually spur some real policy changes? We had a whole rash of bridge collapses before,” and there were some significant developments, including augmentation of the federal Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program, but life goes on and other priorities crop up and such noble efforts peter out until another big bridge falls down.
“The more time I spend talking about this, I realize that I probably should have studied psychology or something,” laments Little. “I think we know the answers, but how do we figure out how we do it?”