An economist named Ed Dolan who lives in Washington state opines that the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge reveals an “infrastructure deficit.” That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom. But consider this.
The bridge collapsed because one of its supporting beams 14.5 feet above the pavement was hit by an oversized truck that should not have been on the bridge. If that oversized truck had hit that beam in 1955, the year the bridge was built, it would have collapsed then. Instead, the bridge stood for 58 years before being hit by such a truck.
Show me any bridge and I can conceive of a truck big enough to bring it down. That doesn’t prove we have an infrastructure deficit; it only proves that every bridge has a limit to what it can carry. Height and weight limits are posted for most bridges; the driver of the truck crossing the Skagit River last week apparently neglected to read the signs.
According to a group called Save Our Bridges, which wants Congress to take action to solve this non-problem, “Repairing the top 2,000 bridges will cost $60 billion and employ 1.2 million construction workers.” The group adds that “deferred maintenance only adds to our national debt.”
But who is deferring maintenance? The Skagit River bridge didn’t collapse because of deferred maintenance; it collapsed because it was hit by a truck that didn’t belong there. The bridge was actually considered “structurally deficient” a few years ago, but maintenance and improvements by the Washington Department of Transportation fixed it.
Nor was the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed in 2007 suffering from deferred maintenance. In fact, it was undergoing maintenance at the time of the collapse. The National Transportation Safety Board report on the collapse found that it was caused by a construction defect: certain parts called gussets were thinner than they should have been. The gussets were hidden, so the only way state maintenance workers could have detected the problem would have been to dismantle the entire bridge.
Thirteen people died in the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Since then, not a single highway fatality can be traced to a bridge collapse. In the intervening years, however, more than 170,000 people lost their lives in highway accidents, including 34,000 in 2012. Many of these fatalities could have been prevented with safer roads.
Despite this, Speaker of the House John Boehner wants to dedicate oil and gas royalties to highway infrastructure. Yet spending billions of dollars on a crash program to replace bridges on the off chance that one of them might collapse some time in the future makes no sense when other things could be done that would save more lives for less money.
Besides, the bridges are being fixed or replaced anyway. The number of bridges considered “structurally deficient” has declined by 44 percent, from more than 118,000 in 1992 to to fewer than 67,000 in 2012, even as the total number of highway bridges increased from 572,000 to 607,000. The number of fracture-critical bridges has declined from 22,000 to 18,000 in the last four years alone.
Save Our Bridges and other advocates of massive infrastructure spending represent engineering and construction companies that stand to make huge profits on unnecessary government programs. The sad thing is that their propaganda has been successful enough to deceive columnists and economists like Dolan.