Nervous that so little progress has been made since last summer’s tragic Minneapolis bridge collapse? You should be. Barry B. LePatner offers solutions for our nation’s infrastructure catastrophe—and points an accusing finger at the “leaders” who are playing politics as usual.
New York — It is hard to believe a year has passed since the tragic I-35W Bridge collapse in Minnesota, but it’s true. August 1st marks the first anniversary of an event that showed how vulnerable America’s infrastructure truly is. And if you’d assumed that since then federal and stategovernment officials have burned the midnight oil trying to solve the problem, well, you’d be wrong. Construction attorney Barry LePatner says that the past year of inaction—which, incidentally, also saw more than 30 Midwest levee breaks that caused billions of dollars in damage and numerous bridge closings that resulted from inspections that followed the I-35W collapse—proves that our infrastructure wake-up call has fallen on deaf ears.
“There’s a quote from the recent I-35W Bridge investigative report that reads, ‘When a bridge collapses, so does public faith in government,'” says LePatner, coauthor of Structural & Foundation Failures (McGraw-Hill, 1982, coauthored with Sidney M. Johnson, P.E.) and author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry(The University of Chicago Press, October 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47267-6, ISBN-10: 0-226-47267-1, $25.00). “I completely agree.
“Unfortunately, it seems no one in our government is bothered by the fact that the public no longer trusts our so-called leaders to keep us safe,” he adds. “Bureaucrats and politicians were ignoring our infrastructure problems before the collapse, and a year later they’re continuing to ignore them. Meanwhile, Americans continue to drive across thousands of bridges that are not only in need of serious repair, but that were never designed for the amount of traffic we inflict on them now in the first place.”
Take, for example, the State of Colorado. The Colorado Department of Transportation has acknowledged that the cost to replace or rehabilitate 125 state bridges rated in poor condition is $1.4 billion. Yet, the state’s DOT says it has the same number of bridges today in poor condition that it did in 1996. Moreover, bridge repair funding, a critical element in reducing the number of bridges that are considered structurally deficient, has been reduced from $32 million in 2007 to $18 million for 2009.
Consider a story out of Georgia in which reports identifying several bridges as hazardous were thrown away. Why? Because the official in charge of the reports said handling the problem would have required too much paperwork and involve too many people.Stories like this one are clear indications that Minnesota isn’t the only state that has had its political head in the sand regarding its infrastructure problems.
“Clearly, government at all levels is falling down on the job we’ve hired them to perform,” says LePatner. “The problems associated with the nation’s infrastructure were easy to ignore until the I-35W Bridge collapse. At that point we saw what can happen when unsafe infrastructure stays in use without the necessary repairs. But our politicians are masters at avoiding these problems. For example, the latest reports from Minnesota clearly show that as early as 1999 photographs depicting bowed or warped gusset plates were warning signs of impending disaster nearly ten years before the collapse. And when the levees broke in the Midwest, responsibility was passed between government entities but no one—not the Army Corps of Engineers, not FEMA, not state officials—wanted to take responsibility.”
We must, must, must start taking steps, right now, to shore up America’s infrastructure, asserts LePatner. Not to do so is to invite more death and destruction. Every engineer in the field of bridge design can testify that the corrosive effects of inadequate maintenance of our bridges and tunnels will only get worse—they are not self-healing. And while the problem is far too massive and widespread to repair overnight, we can take steps now to start chipping away at it. Here are a few of his suggestions:
Insist that politicians stop ignoring the problem. “For decades, reams of engineering analysis and reports have highlighted the deteriorating nature of our infrastructure and the costs of remediation—costs that increase exponentially as every year passes,” says LePatner. “Every politician has received these reports. Most push them aside for a successor to handle, or agree to provide only a fraction of the necessary funds requested by their experts. As a result, the problem has snowballed to staggering proportions. Estimates vary on how much remediation of America’s infrastructure is needed, but most experts agree the cost is well into the hundreds of billions.
“It’s time for our nation’s politicians to be honest with the public about just how bad the infrastructure situation is,” he continues. “That means acknowledging that many of our state roads and bridges are in desperate shape. State officials at every level must stop ignoring the damning aspects of reports they receive that show the need for repairs.”
Overhaul shoddy inspection methods that are letting thousands of dangerous bridges slip through the cracks. Here’s some sobering food for thought: There are 12,000 bridges in our country whose designs are similar to the I-35W Bridge, and, according to statistics from a 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation/Research and Innovative Technology Administration report, there are over 72,000 bridges that are labeled “structurally deficient” and over 81,000 bridges identified as “functionally obsolete.” All of which need detailed inspections to ensure their safety. That same report shows a total of 600,022 bridges in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. That means 26 percent of all state bridges are on lists indicating they need direct attention. According to LePatner, the state of the infrastructure system in the U.S. today results from having been poorly managed and underfunded for years.
“Today, there are no uniform state-mandated minimum standards for the maintenance of bridges and roads,” says LePatner. “Inspections of bridges are to occur every two years by federal requirements, but when carried out, these are often subjective visual observations that fail to use the latest technology to detect cracks and corrosion that may be invisible. The federal government provides $2 billion in maintenance costs annually for 600,000 bridges that fall within its purview. This works out to a paltry $3,500 per bridge, far too little to cover an adequate bridge inspection. The long and short of it is that in addition to more funding, the inspection process itself needs to be examined and brought up to 21st century standards in order to get our infrastructure system back on track.”
Stop cutting funds where they are needed most. Here’s the ugly truth: There wasn’t enough money available to make necessary repairs before the economy went south and now the situation is even more dismal. Many states are cutting costs wherever possible and some of those cuts have a direct impact on infrastructure safety. For example, one popular money-saving tactic is to make staff cuts, and because engineers make a lot of money, they are among the first ones to go. Guess who’s responsible for detecting infrastructure problems and figuring out how to solve them? That’s right: engineers. “I understand the desire to cut costs, but government officials should consider the increased costs that will occur if an infrastructure disaster happens on their watch,” says LePatner.
“Every day that repairs go unmade the costs balloon,” he continues. “A recentreport from the American Council of Engineering Companies shows that California alone estimates that it is losing $15 billion or more a year in loss of production due to the lack of necessary spending to repair the state’s infrastructure. State governments should take into account how much they are losing by avoiding these repairs. Money is being lost whether there is a disaster or not; the only thing that differs is how muchmoney is lost. Politicians and officials should take this into consideration when they make short-term budget cuts that make infrastructure repairs even more difficult.”
Support a national infrastructure bank.”The current infrastructure in our country is wholly inadequate to handle the demands of a 21st century economy […] We run the risk of being left behind by our international competitors if we do not begin to modernize our national infrastructure.”That is a quote from a speech given by Senator Chris Dodd on August 1, 2007, when he held a press conference along with Senator Chuck Hagel to introduce their plan for repairing and updating the nation’s infrastructure, the National Infrastructure Bank Act of 2007. In an eerie coincidence later that same day, the I-35W Bridge collapsed and the grim reality of the condition of our infrastructure became apparent to the whole nation.
According to the report released by Dodd and Hagel at the time, the Infrastructure Bank would be “an independent entity of the government” and would be “tasked with evaluating and financing capacity-building infrastructure projects of substantial regional and national significance. Infrastructure projects that come under the Bank’s consideration are publicly-owned mass transit systems, housing properties, roads, bridges, drinking water systems, and wastewater systems.”
“Unfortunately, the Infrastructure Bank Act hasn’t gotten far in Congress, but it does serve as a tiny step in the right direction,” says LePatner. “Of course, funding the Bank will be a big challenge. State and federal budgets are stretched thin. One option might be the issuance of bonds similar to the mechanism used by the New York & New Jersey Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority to construct the bridges and tunnels connecting those states. A second method may be encouraging public/private partnerships, which would invite equity funds with deep pockets to fund infrastructure repairs in return for tolls.”
Make sure money meant for infrastructure actually goes toward infrastructure. Since its inception, money collected as part of the federal gas tax has been used to build and repair the nation’s roadways. Over the years, though, Congress has started reaching into that pot to fund other less critical transportation projects not connected to our roadways.And the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the federal highway trust fund faces another hard reality: As consumers drive less and buy more fuel-efficient cars, the amount of money going into the fund is decreasing. In fact, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation to deposit $9 billion into the fund to avoid defaults in the highway program.
“Until a National Infrastructure Bank can be established, members of Congress must ensure that all gas tax money goes toward the repair and maintenance of our nation’s roadways,” says LePatner. “The same goes for tolls that are currently being collected on roadways throughout the country. While this gas tax money is just a drop in the barrel compared to what it will take to get our nation’s infrastructure back on track, making sure it’s actually used for its intended purpose will at least buy us a little time.”
Change the 2005 National Transportation Act. Since the 2005 National Transportation Act, states are allowed to do what they choose with the federal funds allotted to them. In other words, for the very first time the federal government has stepped back from establishing national guidelines for the design and maintenance of our critical infrastructure facilities. Rather than giving a state a certain amount of money and saying, “Bridge A” needs repairs and you must use this money to fix it, the federal government is basically saying, Here’s some money; use it at your discretion.
“As a result, the powers that be—who are basically politicians constantly vying for re-election—prefer to spend that money on more ‘glamorous’ things that get noticed by the public,” says LePatner. “Simply put, they get far more political mileage from beautifying an old park than from making repairs on a bridge or roadway. We need national standards for our bridges and roadways. We can’t have highway systems that are maintained under 50 different sets of standards. It just isn’t working.”
Force politicians and other government officials to act on expert recommendations given to them.Our nation’s infrastructure is frequently inspected, but recommendations for repairs are often ignored or held up due to lack of funding. The I-35W Bridge is a prime example. According to a recent investigative report commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and compiled by the firm Gray Plant Mooty, MnDOT hired outside consultants to a) assess the fatigue life and fatigue cracking in the bridge and b) determine whether it was necessary to add “redundancy” to the bridge, providing extra support to the original structure, as a safety precaution. Neither was accomplished. According to the report: “MnDOT initially recognized the need for redundancy but later focused on the fatigue analysis. Ultimately, the Bridge did not receive any materially different treatment than it had historically and redundancy was not added to the Bridge.”
“It turns out that bent gusset plates were photographed and filed away in 1999 but none of the inspectors or MnDOT officials who looked at the photo noticed,” says LePatner. “The bending of multiple plates is what may eventually be deemed a contributing cause of the collapse. If the repairs and inspections above had been carried out as planned, perhaps the bent gusset plates would have been noticed and the bridge could have been closed to protect the public. Fixing infrastructure problems that could lead to loss of human life is compulsory, not optional. We should create an independent system that requires that monies are used as designated and which then ensures that projects get completed as planned. It should not be earmarked money or pork barrel spending, but a non-discretionary spending item that must go toward its intended purpose.”
Enact reforms to help us avoid another Big Dig. For those who don’t know, the Big Dig is the most expensive highway project ever. Its original budget, set back in 1985, was just over $2 billion. It was revealed last week that the real cost of the project is going to reach $22 billion with a pay-off set for 2038. According to a recent Boston Globe article, the Big Dig has dealt a considerable financial blow to the state of Massachusetts. The article states, “Big Dig payments have already sucked maintenance and repair money away from deteriorating roads and bridges across the state, forcing the state to float more highway bonds and to go even deeper into the hole […] Massachusetts spends a higher percentage of its highway budget on debt than any other state.”
According to LePatner, the Big Dig epitomizes everything that is wrong with the construction industry, which is rife with cost overruns and missed schedules. The industry itself will have to be reformed before we can start making progress in repairing the nation’s infrastructure. An essential part of that reform will come in the form of better contracts that would 1) be based on 100 percent complete architectural and engineering drawings and specifications, 2) include a fixed price for everything designed and approved by the owner, and 3) apportion all the risks that are expected during construction between the parties.
“Establishing fixed-priced contracts on large infrastructure remediation projects will lead to savings of billions of public dollars,” asserts LePatner. “When you consider the huge numbers of projects that must be completed in order to restore America’s infrastructure, it’s clear that American taxpayers can’t afford a ‘business as usual’ mindset anymore.”
“We must look at our infrastructure problem as a puzzle that can be solved,” says LePatner. “We have all of the pieces in our hands. We have countless reports telling us how dire the situation is; we know the costs related to making and not making the repairs; and we have seen what happens when infrastructure fails. Now is the time to start putting the puzzle together. The public’s safety is at risk on a day-to-day basis. It’s time for our government to do what it’s being paid to do and take aggressive action to protect its people.”
Mr. LePatner is widely recognized as a thought leader in the construction industry. His new book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (The University of Chicago Press), which was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal, has created a national debate among owners, designers, and other key stakeholders.
Submitted to Axis of Logic by the author.
See the related article by Barry LePatner: United States: Failed Levees, Collapsed Bridges: Dealing with crumbling infrastructure problem (includes Axis of Logic editorial comment) and read LePatner’s book: Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry
– Les Blough, Editor
Source / Axis of Logic