“Gravity Always Wins”: How the U.S. Can Face the Crisis of Unsafe Bridges

If you left your grandma’s old wicker chair out on the porch all winter – and the next, and the next, and the next for 20 years – would you still trust that chair to hold you if you sat down?

A quarter of U.S. bridges may be deficient, but focusing on just the most dangerous will have the most impact. Image: ##http://www.partnershipborderstudy.com/bol_old/Section%201/section1.asp##Partnership Border Study##
A quarter of U.S. bridges may be deficient, but focusing on just the most dangerous will have the most impact. Image: ##http://www.partnershipborderstudy.com/bol_old/Section%201/section1.asp##Partnership Border Study##

According to Barry LePatner, author of the new book Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, you shouldn’t trust our country’s bridges much more than you trust that chair. He calls them “ticking time bombs” and “tragedies waiting to happen.”

But, he says, there’s good news. You’ve heard the estimates that a quarter of the nation’s bridges are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.” That’s more than 160,000 bridges to repair or replace. But rather than throw up our hands and say the problem is too big, LePatner urges us to take a look at a much more significant – and manageable – number: 7,980.

“Forget ‘structurally deficient.’ Forget ‘functionally obsolete,’” LePatner told a group of experts in Washington, DC last week. He urges a new focus on bridges he calls “fracture-critical.”

“A ‘fracture-critical’ bridge is a bridge designed where if one critical member of the bridge fails – one piece –the entire bridge goes down like a house of cards,” he said, “It has no redundancy.”

He’s done an exhaustive analysis and found that there are 18,000 fracture-critical bridges in the U.S. and almost 8,000 of those are also structurally deficient. “Since 1989, nearly 600 bridges in this nation have failed,” LePatner said. “Without immediate repair, those nearly 8,000 fracture critical and structurally deficient bridges will fail as well.”

The narrower focus could be reassuring to governors worried about the overwhelming number of bridges in need of repair in their states. The tragedy in Minneapolis in 2007 is a bitter reminder to all of us – especially to politicians – that ignoring these maintenance needs is not an option. The bridge on I-35W was both fracture-critical and structurally deficient. So was the Champlain Bridge between New York and Vermont that was dynamited last year for safety reasons.

So why is it taking so long to attend to these needs? Advocates of a fix-it-first approach to highways are familiar with the problem, as LePatner describes it:

It’s exciting for politicians to plan and promise a new bridge. They love to stand next to oversized renderings of the new bridge against a brilliant blue sky. But to maintain one, nobody gets too excited about that.  And no politician wants to spend limited capital budget expenditures on something you can’t see, something you can’t show your constituents, or have a ribbon cutting ceremony with happy campaign contributors at your side. From the outside, a new bridge looks pretty much like an old one.

The I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis was both fracture-critical and structurally deficient -- like nearly 8,000 other U.S. bridges. Image courtesy of ##http://www.barrylepatner.com/##Barry LePatner##
The I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis was both fracture-critical and structurally deficient -- like nearly 8,000 other U.S. bridges. Image courtesy of ##http://www.barrylepatner.com/##Barry LePatner##

Meanwhile, bridge repair isn’t just a safety issue; it’s an issue of sprawl. The bridges at the top of state DOTs’ lists to replace aren’t necessarily the most decrepit ones. Often, agencies will place priority on replacing the most congested bridges with wider ones that induce driving and sprawl.

Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign attributes the problem to old-school transportation officials that hold the pursestrings. “Traffic engineers in a lot of the state DOTs have been there for generations,” Vanterpool said in an interview with Streetsblog. “And [building new capacity instead of repairing existing bridges] is an old approach to traffic demand management. And it’s just not an approach that is sustainable today. When you build new roads it just attracts more traffic, more congestion, and when you widen existing roads it’s the same deal.”

LePatner also describes the “perverse incentives” that encourage politicians to let bridges fall into disrepair. “If you have a bridge that’s new, were you to maintain it at the cost of a million dollars a year, that comes out of your state general budget,” he said. “If you let it deteriorate, and 20 years later you now rate it structurally deficient or poor, you qualify for federal funding. So you’re better off, to get monies from the federal government, by letting your bridges deteriorate.”

Many attendees of LePatner’s presentation, including former Pennsylvania and Colorado DOT official Jack Kinstlinger, took offense at LePatner’s portrayal of DOT negligence. “We did all kinds of analyses, and the bridges without redundancy went at the top,” Kinstlinger said in response to LePatner’s assertion. “Most states spend an incredible amount of money getting it right.”

Of course, getting it right means rebuilding old bridges with access for multiple modes, as we reported last week. Bridge reconstruction presents a great opportunity for cyclists and pedestrians to ensure that they’re kept in mind in the design process.

Are there fracture-critical and structurally deficient (ie, unsafe) bridges in your community? LePatner says he’s working on geo-mapping the bridges online, but the maps won’t be ready for a few more months.

  • JJM P.E.

    This is a good approach, but still insufficient. The term “fracture critical,” at least in NYS DOT usage, only applies to steel bridge components. Concrete is not considered fracture critical, even if it is deteriorated to the point where it is at risk from a sudden failure.

    The Lake Champlaign bridge actually provides a case in point. Yes, the superstructure was fracture critical, but it was actually cracks in a pier that convinced DOT that the bridge was in danger of collapse.

    In 2005, The partial collapse of an Albany interchange ramp was caused by failure of a concrete pier. Again, not a fracture critical component.

    The Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse in 1988 was caused by the creek scouring out the ground underneath a pier. This was a steel multi-girder bridge. In this case, the entire bridge was considered not fracture critical.

    So, I would expand the list to ALL bridges that fit in the category that NYSDOT Region 1 Director Mary E. Ivey called the scariest words she ever heard: subject to sudden catastrophic collapse.

  • You’ve heard the estimates that a quarter of the nation’s bridges are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”

    As I wrote back in July, that’s the biggest bait-and-switch. “Functionally obsolete” just means “a lot of people want to drive over them (usually for free) and that means that sometimes they have to slow down.”

    On Slate, Jack Shafer pointed out that because of declining populations and economic activity, some of these bridges should really be rebuilt smaller than they are now, but none of the DOTs ever suggest that.

    When you build new roads it just attracts more traffic, more congestion, and when you widen existing roads it’s the same deal.

    Which is why I’d really like Vanterpool to come out forcefully against the proposed widening of the Tappan Zee Bridge from 7 lanes to 10, and the Kosciuszko from 6 lanes to 9, which was decided by the State DOT with no public input whatsoever.

  • Driver

    So we should continue to bottleneck freight and commerce at these crossings because you do not like cars and traffic? And we should rebuild these bridges without consideration of present overcapacity and future growth, particularly with respect to commerce for the same reason? To do so would be unwise and demonstrate poor planning.

  • Boris

    “And we should rebuild these bridges without consideration of present overcapacity and future growth, particularly with respect to commerce for the same reason?”

    Where do you see future growth? This recession is making us see two things: (1) many places are shrinking; (2) growing by expanding roadway capacity is unsustainable and gets us the worst bang for the buck.

    Both point to the same conclusion: To put our communities on financially sound footing, any future growth should be channeled to repairing existing bridges at existing capacity (or smaller where existing capacity is not needed), and expanding freight rail and public transit. No matter which way you put it, expanding bridge capacity for the purpose of moving private motor vehicles is simply not needed anywhere in the country.

  • To expand on what Cap’n Transit said, “functionally obsolete” makes no claims as to the structural integrity of the bridge whatsoever. It’s more than just being overloaded with traffic though, it can also mean that lanes are too narrow, there’s curbs or railings too close to the travel lanes, there’s short or no merge room for ramps, or that there’s other geometric issues related to its design. To lump “functionally obsolete” bridges into the same category as the “structurally deficient” ones is definitely a disingenuous bait-and-switch that’s usually used to justify capacity expansion projects.

  • In a country where replacing a bridge costs $16 billion, it makes sense to focus on the bridges that must be replaced. Reducing congestion is a nice-to-have; preventing fatal bridge failures is a priority.

  • Driver

    Boris, I was referring to the two bridges here in NY mentioned by Cap’n Transit. NYC is growing, not shrinking, I believe the goal is to gain a million more people in the next decade or two. It’s not about building more roads everywhere, it’s about alleviating major bottlenecks so the existing roads can be utilized more efficiently.
    You mentioned freight rail. The proposed cross harbor rail tunnel if ever constructed would terminate right near the Kosciuszko Bridge, and would increase truck traffic in the area significantly. Expanding the bridge capacity during its replacement would be the sensible thing to do.

    BTW, the expansion of the Tappan Zee bridge would also include rail lines, something it does not currently have.

  • Eliminating bottlenecks is merely capacity expansion. A single tight bottleneck prevents the rest of the network from becoming over-utilized. Here in Cincinnati the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River is a significant bottleneck to traffic between downtown and northern Kentucky. The rest of I-75 in Kentucky isn’t terribly congested except during inclement weather (there’s a steep hill that tends to hobble trucks on the climb up). When that bridge is replaced (originally stated to be structurally unsound, but now reportedly fine and expected to remain for local traffic…a classic bait-and-switch), travel to northern Kentucky will become faster and it will push suburban development farther out, thus overwhelming the whole highway instead of just the bridge crossing.

  • J:Lai

    Driver, I agree with you regarding the Kosciuszko bridge. Failure to expand capacity for commercial traffic would be very poor planning indeed.
    I see 2 ways of doing this – one is to add the lanes as planned. Another would be to introduce tolls on the BQE and LIE that would reduce the amount of total traffic on these roads.
    A bike/ped facility on this bridge would be nice but is not really necessary as there are redundant facilities on the Byrne and Pulaski crossings, and those are better connectors for people travelling locally.

  • Moser

    The funding issue (perverse incentive) is not as cut and dried as it is presented above. Maintenance and rehabilitation work can be classified as capital and meet a variety of criteria for federal funds.

  • Christie

    How can the Government take over the very aspects of our lives? Report non stories like this one to distract the American people

  • If the goal is to add a million people at minimal cost rather than maximal cost, then the correct policy is to upzone near underused subway lines, such as the lines feeding into Coney Island. It requires spending a lot of political capital in a NIMBY-prone area, but it’s cheaper for the taxpayer than building ARC, the Tappan Zee replacement, and other assorted boondoggles.

    The Tappan Zee replacement’s rail service is around a third of the budget, and isn’t terribly useful; if the point is to get as many people commuting across the Hudson to switch to transit, then ARC Alt G would be cheaper and remove more cars from the road.

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