When Bridges Collapse

Functionally obsolete — but not structurally deficient!

Scary scenes in Washington state yesterday when an Interstate bridge collapsed, but perhaps even scarier is the fact that the bridge was not even among the bridges in advanced disrepair — just merely “functionally obsolete”. Meanwhile, we have 493 structurally deficient bridges in Massachusetts.

We need to invest in our infrastructure, but that takes revenue – yes, “taxes.”


Awaiting rescue in Washington’s I5 bridge collapse.

Republicans have blocked infrastructure spending at the national level. And at the state level, Massachusetts legislators, controlled by Democrats, have rejected infrastructure investment spending, most recently in the April 2013 vote on new revenue (review the Governor’s “Choose Growth” agenda), capping off a decade of revenue shortfalls and budget cuts.

If our government officials cannot muster up the will to take invest in repairing our infrastructure, citizens need to start demanding it. Although yesterday’s accident was miraculously without casualties, we know from Minnesota 2007 that we cannot always be so lucky.

Minnesota bridge collapse in 2007 killed 13 people.


The Boston Globe weighed in today (5/29) with an editorial echoing our reading of the Seattle and Minnesota collapses as a warning bell to the Mass. Legislature. 

THE BRIDGE on Interstate 5 north of Seattle was not officially labeled “structurally deficient,” the designation signaling a serious need for repairs. Built in 1955, it was instead labeled “functionally obsolete,” a lower level of priority. Last week, a truck with a too-tall load slammed into an overhead girder, causing a giant swath of the bridge to plunge into the Skagit River, cars and all. It was a sobering reminder of the precariousness of too many aging bridges — and of the fact that Massachusetts has 467 of them that have been labeled “structurally deficient.”

In 2008, after 13 people died in Minneapolis when an Interstate 35 bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, Governor Patrick launched a $3 billion, eight-year program to accelerate the repair of bridges in the Commonwealth. Transportation Secretary Rich Davey reports that the number of structurally deficient bridges has been cut by nearly 20 percent, from 543 down to the current 467.

The $1.1 billion transportation bill proposed by the governor last winter [see our Campaign for Our Communities resource page] would have provided enough funding to get that number down to the low 200s by 2023, Davey says.

But the Legislature is balking at the price tag. Davey says the House’s $500 million alternative proposal might effectively end the accelerated-repair program, while the Senate’s $800 million offer would allow it to limp along. There is no help from Washington, either, as President Obama’s $50 billion proposal to repair the nation’s transportation infrastructure is mired in partisan gridlock.

Aging bridges, as proven time and time again, are a real danger. Whatever the House and Senate do with Patrick’s transportation proposal, they should do so with the understanding that any major shortchanging of bridge repairs is a sign of structural deficiency — on Beacon Hill.

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