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A year ago, Americans saw the horror of Minnesota's Interstate 35W bridge collapse, which sent drivers tumbling to their deaths into the Mississippi River. In marking the anniversary of this tragedy, it is important to understand its systematic causes in order to avoid future disasters.
The Minnesota tragedy is part of a broader nationwide problem with structurally deficient bridges. The span on I-35W had been classified as structurally deficient since 1990, meaning that significant load-bearing elements were in impaired, though not necessarily dangerous, condition.
Bridge inspectors have assigned this status to one in eight bridges across the U.S., totaling more than 70,000 and 415 in Washington. More than 50,000 bridges nationwide are sufficiently damaged that inspectors recommend they be replaced entirely.
The major reasons for this systematic failure are shortsighted politics and misguided policies that cause funding for bridge repair to compete unsuccessfully against money for new highways. No powerful interest lobbies to protect against diverting bridge repair funds to new highways.
On the contrary, well-connected developers and road builders lobby aggressively for wider lanes, new branch roads and additional off ramps. Builders often prefer lucrative contracts to pour concrete and steel for new highways rather than the uncertainty of relatively complex and labor-intensive restoration and repair.
Any homeowner with a leaky roof or cracked foundation knows how tempting it is to put off repairs until next summer.
The state of Minnesota consistently gave in to that temptation. In fact, the state auditor found that since 2002 more than half of the highway spending in the state was directed to expanding rather than maintaining roads, despite the department's own "preservation first" policy to do the opposite.
Minnesota repeatedly borrowed money for ambitious highway expansion projects while leaving insufficient funds to maintain existing roadways. A 10-year study by the Minneapolis Star Tribune similarly found that state spending on new road and bridge construction rose every year and doubled between 1997 and 2007 while bridge repair funds stayed flat.
Federal policies fail to foster proper stewardship of U.S. bridges. Perverse incentives actually can encourage deferred maintenance. Federal formulas dole out money to states according to their outstanding costs for replacing deficient bridges, but there is little accountability to assure that states use the money for this purpose.
On the contrary, states that conduct preventative maintenance traditionally have been forced to pay for it out of scarce state general funds that are fiercely fought over for education, health care and other programs. States that defer maintenance and allow a bridge to deteriorate to the point of replacement can tap into federal capital funds – albeit at a much greater total cost to taxpayers.
Led by Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed much-needed legislation last month that would provide federal direction and funding, while requiring state accountability, to repair existing infrastructure. Sad to say, this reform appears stalled this session, as no companion legislation has been taken up by the Senate.
Unless we change the way that America finances bridge repair, we remain doomed to repeat the tragic mistakes of the past. This anniversary should be an occasion to refocus on priorities that will otherwise remain forgotten and push for reform.
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