Following the collapse of the I-5 Skagit River bridge earlier this year, the Associated Press (AP) performed an analysis of the 607,380 bridges in the National Bridge Inventory. According to the AP report, more than 10% of those bridges, over 65,000, are classified as structurally deficient. Over 20,000 of the bridges are designated fracture-critical. Nearly 7,800 of the bridges are rated as both structurally deficient and fracture-critical.
The bridges that are designated both structurally deficient and fracture-critical are located nationwide, carrying more than 29 million vehicles each day. Most of these bridges are well beyond their projected 50-year life spans and were not built to handle current traffic volumes.
Referring to the fracture-critical bridges, the AP report quotes American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Program Manager Kelley Rehm as saying, “It’s kind of like trying to predict where an earthquake is going to hit or where a tornado is going to touch down.” It’s important to note that he says “where,” not “if,” the next collapse will take place.
The fracture-critical designation is particularly troublesome as it figured prominently in both the I-5 Skagit River bridge and the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapses. Fracture-critical means that if any one structural element fails, the entire bridge can collapse.
Unfortunately, at the time both the I-35W and I-5 bridges were built, using a fracture-critical design was still an accepted practice. Both bridges were opened to the public before the infamous fracture-critical collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio River in December of 1967.
As if this earlier fracture-critical collapse wasn’t sufficient notice to keep all such bridges under constant and intense scrutiny, the more recent collapses make it clear that it’s beyond time for a change in the way we manage the maintenance of our roads and bridges. The trucking industry has paid dearly, in terms of fuel taxes, excise taxes, and highway use taxes, to have the highway system built, and more importantly, maintained. Unfortunately, the highway “trust” fund has been pillaged over the years. User fees paid into the highway trust fund are all too frequently used for funding trails, underused transit systems, and other non-highway boondoggles.
The business world has a term for this; it’s called embezzlement.
While full-on privatization of the highway system would be an undeniable admission of the failure of our government, perhaps it’s time to at least take highway funding and maintenance out of the political realm. Maybe it is time to run it more like a business within the government, complete with market-like reviews of performance and legal penalties for misuse of funds.