National Opinions

Other voices: the Minneapolis bridge collapse

A selection of editorials concerning the collapse of the highway bridge in Minneapolis:

Washington Post, Saturday:

Most people who have motored across America's massive bridges have had the thought: What if the span gives way? From the Brooklyn to the Mackinac to the Golden Gate, this country prides itself on its highway bridges -- feats of engineering, some of them iconic, that accept daily wear and tear without incident. The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge between Minneapolis and St. Paul made those fears about crossing over a rushing river or a deep gorge on a suspended strip of pavement seem more reasonable.

We hope that investigators can quickly determine how and why the bridge collapsed and glean lessons for other bridges in need of repair. Even before that process ends, however, state and federal policymakers must consider how to better maintain America's vital infrastructure.

More than 75,000 of America's bridges, about 13 percent, are "structurally deficient," according to 2005 government figures. Some experts insist the country's bridges are safe and that the bridge collapse was an "anomaly," as National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker told The Associated Press.

Catastrophic bridge failures are exceedingly rare in the United States. What this episode underscores, however, is that much of America's road and bridge infrastructure is aging and will require expensive repair or replacement in coming years. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that fixing all the structurally deficient bridges in the country would cost a whopping $188 billion over two decades.

Washington is a case in point: According to the D.C. Transportation Department's deputy chief engineer, the city has been able to maintain its bridges with the federal funding it has received, but it will require more federal help over the next 10 years to retrofit spans such as the 11th Street and 14th Street bridges.

Congress and the president need to start thinking about how to pay for improvement and repair in Washington and across the country now, before the problem becomes more critical. That might include considering the first gas tax increase since 1993.

Minneapolis Star Tribune, Friday:

"The system worked." That's the reassurance a newspaper longs to report when a calamity like the rush-hour collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge strikes its hometown. Wednesday night and Thursday, heartening signs were all around that disaster recovery systems upon which Minnesotans rely were responding wisely and well. As the whole world watched the aftermath of the catastrophe, and as anxious families awaited word on many people still missing, this state did itself proud.

The first responders were strong in number, resources and skill -- bolstered, Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan said, by the training and equipment that came to the city after the 9/11 attacks. They had invaluable aid from brave citizens on and near the bridge whose first reactions were to attend to the needs of others, not themselves.

Minneapolis police and fire officials and the Hennepin County sheriff's department had quick and generous support from law enforcement agencies around the area, as well as from the FBI.

The area's emergency medical systems swung into well-planned, prompt and effective action. Paramedics and hospital teams did lifesaving work. A call for blood donations went out, and donors responded.

The Minnesota Twins did the right thing, both in keeping Wednesday night's fans in their seats and in canceling Thursday's game and groundbreaking ceremony. Baseball was a helpful diversion Wednesday night, but would have put needless pressure on downtown roadways on Thursday -- which was not a day for celebrating the construction of a new ballpark.

Local, state and federal political leaders of both parties stood together Thursday morning and said they would combine forces to flex government's muscle in recovery, cleanup and rebuilding. They also vowed to find the cause of Wednesday's disaster, and make sure it never recurs.

Minnesotans should hold them to those words. For while the post-disaster systems worked admirably, the inspection system that citizens rely on either failed or was swamped by a calamitous "perfect storm" of unforeseeable events to cause Wednesday's collapse.

Monitoring and protecting the reliability of roads, bridges, sewers and other public works is a basic government function that needs to be routinely performed at a high level. Well before Wednesday, Sen. Norm Coleman sponsored and Sen. Amy Klobuchar signed on to a measure to create a national commission to assess America's infrastructure needs and defects and report back to Congress. That legislation appears prescient today; it clearly will be needed to bolster public confidence and ensure safety.

Thursday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered the emergency inspection of three bridges with similar design and the hiring of an independent firm to review state bridge inspection practices. Those are good moves as Minnesota awaits -- perhaps for many months -- word on what happened to cause such a disastrous collapse.

Miami Herald, Friday:

There are more than a half-million bridges in the United States, a primary component of the country's infrastructure. It's a sure bet that the majority of commuters crossing those bridges Thursday was acutely aware of what is normally taken for granted: our expectation that the bridge will hold as we cross it, time and time again.

The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities has taxpayers, transportation officials and politicians pondering what most of us consider rarely -- our infrastructure's solidity. And well we should. Many of those half-million-plus bridges are nearing the half-century mark or more, and their age is showing.

The cause of the 40-year-old bridge's collapse may not be discovered for months. A 2005 federal study found the bridge to be "structurally deficient," a term that, at this stage, appears subject to various interpretations of risk. The bridge, the area's busiest, was jammed with vehicles when it crumpled during evening rush hour, with the final death and injury toll unknown pending the complex recovery effort.

The collapse impacted all sorts of infrastructure -- halting barge traffic on the river while debris also fell on a train passing underneath, blocking the tracks. There are roads and bike paths under the bridge that are now impassable.

Any catastrophe of this magnitude brings out the pointed fingers -- faulty design, poor maintenance, lack of funding, etc. But the Minnesota Department of Transportation is recognized as one of the best DOTs in the country. Minnesotans appreciate this. Last year, they overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that bars the Legislature from raiding funds dedicated to transportation for nonrelated spending.

So, if MnDOT, as it's known, ranks highly among state transportation agencies and still this happened, residents in other states have to ask what shape their transportation infrastructure is in. A legitimate question, and no doubt DOTs all over are revisiting their bridge design and maintenance programs in the aftermath of the 35W collapse.

The United States went on an infrastructure-building binge after World War II, beginning with construction of the interstate highway system under the Eisenhower administration. Cities began developing comprehensive water and sewer systems, and electricity and telecommunications utilities began a long phase of expansion. But at least since the late 1980s, experts have warned that maintenance of the nation's infrastructure was woefully wanting. As a society we must confront how we can maintain and upgrade our infrastructure as needed.

Bottom line is the key here -- collectively finding the will to foot the bill, that is.

Detroit Free Press, Friday:

Two of the many things that come to mind after the Twin Cities bridge disaster:

Check the bridges. America's highway infrastructure is not getting any younger and carrying more traffic than ever. A pothole is generally just a nuisance. A bad bridge can be a disaster, whether you are on it or underneath it.

The state Department of Transportation has an ongoing bridge inspection program and is always repairing or replacing a bridge somewhere. DOT Director Kirk Steudle said Thursday that "we always follow any bridge collapse very closely, and as soon as we know the cause and details of the failure, we evaluate our inventory of bridges for similar types of details, and we do special inspections to assure that our structures will remain safe."

That is reassuring. But the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association released a list just last week of more than 200 bridges around the state that are in serious to critical condition. Remember the rain of concrete from a crumbling bridge on I-696 last March? Bridge inspection and repair are much better than bridge disaster and replacement.

Life is random, despite our best efforts to keep it structured.

You drive across the same bridge twice a day, hundreds of times a year, so often that you don't even notice the view any more of the Mississippi River below. You take the same route to the baseball game that you have been taking on summer evenings for more than a decade.

Or maybe you decide, just this once, to take the highway instead of the road less traveled. And on this Wednesday in August, for reasons yet to be determined, the bridge collapses beneath you. Or beneath the car that's just five ahead of you -- you escape, the other driver doesn't. You spend the rest of your life asking why.

And there is no satisfactory answer.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday:

The grim search for victims in the debris-clogged waters of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis could have been worse, but for the heroics of other motorists and first responders also caught up in the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

When as many as 50 vehicles plunged into the water Wednesday, survivors became others' saviors -- helping them to the river banks.

Emergency crews' rapid work no doubt spared other lives.

For those who perished and for the families of motorists whose fates remain unknown, our prayers and condolences are offered.

But the Minneapolis bridge collapse has clear implications for every community.

First, transportation officials need to learn all they can about how this bridge collapsed in an effort to predict other perils. Such interstate-span failures are rare. Most stem from storms or a ship striking a bridge pier.

If the 40-year-old bridge collapsed for no reason other than it needed repair, then that is a grim reminder of the nation's begging infrastructure needs.

Such an infrastructure failure points up the conundrum that nobody particularly wants to pay the price when it comes to maintenance and replacement.

In a letter to Congress, the American Society of Civil Engineers recently sounded a stern warning: "From long commutes and dirty water to unsafe dams and bridges, with each passing day failing infrastructure is threatening the economy and quality of life in every state, city and town in America."

ASCE has estimated the cost of addressing U.S. infrastructure needs at $1.6 trillion over five years. This should be a top federal priority, especially along the interstate system created as a national defense network.

No surprise, but the federal government hasn't been pulling its weight -- and states cannot be expected to go it alone. Remedying the situation doesn't have to await the Iraq war's end, but it does require realigning low-tax policies.

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where at least one out of three bridges is showing serious wear, the need to invest more on repairs is critical. On PennDot maps of the Philadelphia region, a frightening number of red stars denote ailing bridges.

For a change, Harrisburg is getting ahead of the curve with Pennsylvania's recently approved transportation funding plan. A backlog of nearly 6,000 bridge repairs awaits, along with critical highway and transit needs.

Two upstate congressmen fighting the funding plan's tolling of Interstate 80 couldn't have picked a worse moment for their misguided crusade.