On August 2, 2007, the entire span of I-35W (officially known as Bridge 9340) in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River. Vehicles, concrete and metal crashed into the water below. Lives were lost and many more were changed that fateful day.
Immediately following the collapse, federal officials ordered an inspection of all steel deck truss bridges like the I-35W bridge. Investigative reporter, Bill Dedman reported the following:
“At first, officials thought there were 756 steel deck truss bridges like the one that fell. That’s how many they found in the official federal database of bridges, the National Bridge Inventory, which gets its records from the states. Then state engineers found 32 more to add to the list. But when states started the inspections, they found that 280 of the bridges weren’t steel deck trusses at all — including 13 bridges made of wood timbers. Another 16 no longer existed; a bridge in Pennsylvania had been closed in 1982. Another 11 were private bridges, not subject to federal inspection. One in New Mexico was a pedestrian bridge. And a bridge in Pennsylvania had been double counted; federal officials had placed an identical ghost bridge in Maryland. By the time the survey was finished, the count of bridges of the same type as the Minneapolis span was down to 479, or 277 fewer than initially reported, according to internal e-mails from the Federal Highway Administration received Thursday by msnbc.com under the Freedom of Information Act.”
The Federal Highway Administration recommended framework for a bridge inspection QA/QC program is comprehensive. In 2008, they cite six (6) state DOTs that have “existing QC/QA procedures that address specific aspects of the “Recommended Framework” in a manner the FHWA considers commendable.” Six? Out of all of the DOTs in the US? I do realize that all states must have existing QC/QA procedures. But only six are “commendable?” What is the status of the remaining state inspection programs? Adequate? Average? Acceptable?
We know that bridge construction has changed over the years. Improvements in technology for use in bridge design, materials and construction have allowed engineers to project increased longevity of bridges. Structural engineers now describe bridge lifespan in terms of 100 years, instead of 20-50 years. Building new “improved” bridges, are we going to have 50 DOTs with commendable QA/QC inspection programs?
With the ability to build with an eye to sustainability, how do we fix what we have? Where does this leave us with our decaying bridges? Many of those bridges now require billions of dollars for rehabilitation or replacement. How can we financially repair them if we don’t even have an accurate count of where they are and what type of bridge they are? What do you think?
By Carol Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of CivilEngineeringCentral.com