Bridging the gap between perception and reality

Chad the Elder at Fraters Libertas beat me to posting about an editorial in the Wall Street Journal the absurdity and hypocrisy of those using the cantilevered ruins of the 35W bridge as a springboard to call for higher gas taxes.

Minnesota’s transportation auditors warned as long ago as 1990 that there was a “backlog of bridges that are classified as having structural deficiencies.” In 1999 engineers declared that cracks found in the bridge that collapsed were “a major concern.” Bike paths were deemed a higher priority by Congress, however, including its powerful Minnesota Representatives.

As recently as July 25, Mr. Oberstar sent out a press release boasting that he had “secured more than $12 million in funding” for his state in a recent federal transportation and housing bill. But $10 million of that was dedicated to a commuter rail line, $250,000 for the “Isanti Bike/Walk Trail,” $200,000 to bus services in Duluth, and $150,000 for the Mesabi Academy of Kidspeace in Buhl. None of it went for bridge repair.

Minnesota’s state budget is also hardly short of tax revenue. The state spends $25 billion a year, twice what it did 10 years ago. The Tax Foundation reports that Minnesota has the seventh highest personal income tax rates among all states, the third highest corporate tax rates, and the 10th highest taxes on workers.

The Legislature started the year with a record $2 billion budget surplus, and the economy threw off another $149 million of unexpected revenue. Where did all that money go? Not to roads and bridges. The Taxpayers League of Minnesota says the politicians chose to pour those tax dollars into more spending for health care, art centers, sports stadiums and welfare benefits.

Even transportation dollars aren’t scarce. Minnesota spends $1.6 billion a year on transportation — enough to build a new bridge over the Mississippi River every four months. But nearly $1 billion of that has been diverted from road and bridge repair to the state’s light rail network that has a negligible impact on traffic congestion. Last year part of a sales tax revenue stream that is supposed to be dedicated for road and bridge construction was re-routed to mass transit. The Minnesota Department of Economic Development reports that only 2.8% of the state’s commuters ride buses or rail to get to work, but these projects get up to 25% of the funding.

Americans aren’t selfish or stingy, and they can see for themselves that many of our roads need repair. Minnesota in particular is a state that has long prided itself on its “progressive” politics and a willingness to pay higher taxes for good government. Minnesotans already pay twice as much in taxes per capita than residents in New Hampshire and Texas — states that haven’t had a major bridge collapse.

We don’t lack the money in Minnesota to do what needs to be done, and should have been done. What we lack are the political leaders on both sides with the vision and guts to serve the public and not their pet interest groups. The money problem isn’t that there’s not enough to do the job but that it’s misused and abused to buy votes — whether it’s state money diverted to boondoggles or the money the special interests pour in to fit lovely gold rings into the noses of the politicians.

Fat chance, Lafayette

The Highway 35 bridge over the Mississippi was one that I was pretty familiar with, but didn’t have to drive on too often in recent years. When it fell I had little trouble picturing it in my mind — or imagining the sensation of being one of those trapped on the span when it fell. I was very glad that I wasn’t on that bridge and that it wasn’t part of my direct commute.

Later, as we heard what was known about the condition of the bridge, I also thought about human nature and whether I would, if I knew the bridge’s condition, have continued to drive that bridge if it was the fastest way to work. How difficult would it have been to rationalize saving 10 or 15 minutes in order to drive on a bridge that even with its deficiencies was still considered safe to drive by experts? And how stupid would I have then felt when I felt the first tremor? I was glad that I hadn’t had to try and work that one out.

Or so I thought.

Over 100 state bridges rated worse than 35W
(Article and graph from St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 5.)

Before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, state engineers viewed another Twin Cities bridge as a more serious threat: the Lafayette Bridge in downtown St. Paul.

The span over the Mississippi River is scheduled to be replaced in 2011 – many years before the I-35W bridge would have been – and suffers the same key defect that experts say contributed to Wednesday’s disaster. It was built with an outdated design that doesn’t prevent the entire structure from falling if one component fails.

“Drive across the Lafayette Bridge in rush hour sometime,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett. “It shakes. I won’t drive on it. That bridge is in dire need.”

The Lafayette is one of about 100 bridges in Minnesota considered to be in worse condition than the I-35W span that crumbled during rush hour Wednesday, according to a review of inspection records. The collapse has left many wondering how one of the state’s most heavily traveled bridges could have simply succumbed during normal, everyday traffic.

MnDOT engineer Chris Roy, interviewed before the collapse of the I-35W bridge, said the Lafayette has structural flaws and called it a “high-maintenance” bridge. It received a “poor condition” rating for its superstructures (I-beams, girders) and a “fair condition” rating for its deck. The substructure is in “good condition.”

The bridge also suffers the same inherent flaw as the I-35W bridge – it was built without structural redundancies.

“It’s a type of bridge design that we wouldn’t build anymore,” Roy said.

The Lafayette Bridge is part of my commute, and I’ve driven it at least twice a day for ten years, plus countless other trips into St. Paul. I have felt it bounce and vibrate at times, and I have looked over the edge (especially when south-bound) at the long drop that makes my knees tingle at the prospect, even before the recent and dramatic demonstration that bridges can fail.

Hearing that the Lafayette Bridge was considered to be in more immediate need of replacement than the (when it was still standing) Hwy. 35 bridge, I had to ask myself another question: “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

So today I took 35E to Ayd Mill Road and got onto Hwy. 94 east of Hwy. 280 where the congestion was really starting to back up. It took 45 minutes to get to my office, which is about what it’s been taking “normally” this summer with the effects of all the other road construction in the system keeping traffic clogged during a time of year that is usually pretty free-flowing due to significant parts of the workforce taking vacations any given week. I also have the choices of the Wabasha and Robert Street bridges (lovely bridges, but you have to crawl through downtown St. Paul to get to the highway).

I understand that “deficient” doesn’t mean “defective” and that in engineering terms the Lafayette Bridge is still considered adequate. The story I cited above also reports that the old Wabasha bridge had a “4” rating before it was ultimately closed and rebuilt in ’96, and that the Stillwater Lift Bridge has a 2.8 rating and people are still driving over it. I understand that there are bridges with lower ratings still being used. I also, however, understand that “fracture critical” means that the Lafayette Bridge, like the 35W bridge, has no safety redundancies if part of it starts to go.

You know, the scenery is really rather nice along Ayd Mill Road.

Update: Another story in the Strib today describes more concerns with the Lafayette Bridge, including an incident when a large crack in the main beam led to a 7″ dip in the roadway.


Wednesday I left my car at home to have the windshield replaced after the little bit of excitment I described on Tuesday. This meant I commuted in my wife’s car, which does not have a radio antenna. While I have used the Hwy. 35 bridge before to get in and out of downtown, my drive typically takes me through the University and I bypass the ramp leading to the span. This summer I’ve avoided this route altogether because of the construction related to the new Gopher stadium. Out of touch and out of the way, I didn’t hear about the collapse of the bridge until about 6:15 when I got home, switched cars and decided to go out to Culver’s for dinner before church. Hearing the news was an eerie recollection of getting the first reports on the morning of 9/11.

Just like then it was a brilliant, sunny day and I was driving and listening to the radio and just like then I had to scramble mentally to convert the unreal into reality. It wasn’t hard, however, to create a picture in my mind of the all-too-familiar bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic on the span and the sickening sensation of having the roadway tremble and fall beneath you. Those were my first thoughts, and then I started to inventory my family and friends. I was obviously safely out of the area, and my wife and youngest weren’t even in the country. My oldest daughter would still be at work in Roseville and wouldn’t take that route home anyway, but might find unexpected disruptions, so I used my cell phone to call hers and leave a short message on what had happened and what to expect. Then I thought of my parents in Missouri and their penchant for keeping the tv on and I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a local story, so I tried but couldn’t reach my mom’s cell, and then got my brother on his. He lived here for several years and knew the bridge; I told him we were all accounted for and fine.

As I waited for my food at Culver’s I remembered that my friend Ben would be on the bus heading this way for church. He lives near the bridge but his bus route wouldn’t logically take him that direction. Still, best to make sure. I called him on his cell and started to feel some relief when he answered. I asked, “Are you on the bus?” He replied, “Yes, and it’s horrible…” as my heart started to thump.

“Why, what’s going on, where are you?” I said with what what may have sounded to him like unwarranted agitation.

“Oh…some people…can be so clueless and rude sometimes,” he began.

I quickly filled him in on what was going on and determined that he, too, was well clear of the area. Driving to church I thought of my friend Harvey who is a bridge inspector for MNDOT and mused about how busy he was going to be. Just as I pulled up to the building the radio announced that a MNDOT bridge inspection team had been working at the site when the bridge collapsed. Uh-oh. I trotted inside. Our pastor was speaking and people were already praying; our pastor’s wife met me in the back of the room. “Harvey was there, but he’s all right.” The congregation continued to pray. I ducked out a couple of times during the evening as my cell phone vibrated, people trying to get a hold of me. When I got home there was a message from my folks. They hadn’t been watching the news that evening, but my grandmother had. She had called them, they had called me.

The next day I tried to get in to work early because my job would put me in the middle of creating and distributing any communications that might need to go out to our employees or clients. Our offices are very near the bridge and many of my co-workers could have been on it as they tried to get home. Traffic was predictably slow Thursday morning, so I called in to my new employee as I made my way west to see if anything was buzzing yet. I was a little embarrassed by the relief in her voice when I got through; it hadn’t crossed my mind earlier to let her know I had gotten safely across the river the night before, and I hadn’t yet thought to give her all my contact numbers.

Once I was in the office I was again reminded of 9/11. Back then we had had a number of clients and business contacts in the WTC, and many of our own staff were flying on business that day, some of them on the East Coast. Everyone was trying to get information; spouses were calling in, asking for itineraries or to find out if we’d had any word, a constant crowd of people was gathered around the small black and white monitor in the conference room as we hoped for new information every five minutes. Thursday we’d all already seen the pictures and it was very quiet as people almost whispered their conversations between the cubicles or kept to themselves, waiting for news. Given our proximity, could we, would we, escape unscathed? I called HR and I called our communications team in the Atlanta headquarters. As yet there had still been no word of anyone from our campus being hurt or missing. We were, however, already receiving countless phone calls and emails from our clients around the country, offering their concern, support and prayers.

As the day went on it seemed more and more likely that we hadn’t lost anyone from our Division or from the Minneapolis campus, which in fact turned out to be the case. Remarkably, we had been unaffected. That is not to say that we were untouched.