Most people don’t realize the lurking danger they face from a potential bridge collapse failure when performing their daily commute. Very few would readily recognize a freeway overpass as a bridge, but the truth is, all overpasses are bridges and an alarming number of them are listed as having deficiencies or being obsolete in the National Bridge Inventory Database. Almost every motorist across the country drives over or under one of these bridges each day and the majority have no idea that such structures could possibly experience a failure, let alone the fact there are warning signs of impending bridge collapses known to our federal government.
In the past year, two major bridge collapses occurred on our roadways, drawing national attention to this fairly unknown, growing problem. Every year dozens of our bridges fall further into disrepair and many more become obsolete or unusable, but it is only when a bridge collapse occurs that the public takes notice of the fact that our nation is plagued by outdated infrastructure. Most of our bridges and roads are in dire need of repair, but the funds to do so on the necessary scale are woefully lacking and priority is often given to bridges of historical value over bridges that are needed for everyday travel. These untenable conditions make it clear that another bridge collapse is on the horizon if nothing is done.
July 19, 2015 – I-10 Tex Wash Bridge Collapse – Desert Center, California
In the midst of Southern California’s normally hot, dry July the skies parted and brought the drought plagued area some much needed rain. To those in other states, the mere inch of unseasonable rainfall might seem a little paltry, but for water starved Southern California it was a torrential downpour capable of causing mayhem on the streets. This pandemonium however, was not caused by a stereotypical shock over the rain, but by the actual streets themselves. Along with a lack of water, they have a lack of water resistant structures. Unlike other cities that live with temperamental weather as a constant companion, many of its structures are not made to withstand a true onslaught of precipitation. Flash floods swept across the Southland and mudslide warnings were put into effect—but that wasn’t even the beginning of the troubles that SoCal’s traffic riddled streets would face.
At around 2:30 p.m. in the Desert Center area, the eastbound lanes of the 10 freeway overpass collapsed and the westbound lanes were undermined, after the rising waters in the area bombarded the structure. The bridge failure trapped thousands of drivers on the rain slicked roads. The bridge failure damaged one car and injured that vehicle’s sole occupant when it collapsed.
Of course there was nothing that could have been done to prevent this bridge from experiencing a failure. Right? Sadly, the truth is this accident was very much preventable. The Tex Wash bridge, as this section of Interstate 10 is called, was listed in the National Bridge Inventory Database as functionally obsolete. When a bridge is labeled as functionally obsolete it means that the structure is no longer appropriate for its current use. For example, a bridge might be marked as obsolete if it does not have enough lanes to support the current flow of traffic, or if does not have emergency shoulders, or clearance for an oversized vehicle. Basically, this means that the bridge should not be used in the way it is currently being utilized, but there is nothing structurally flawed with the bridge…yet.
However, anyone can tell you that if you rely on something not suited for the task, you could get seriously injured. It is like when everyone says not to try to open difficult packages with your teeth. You may decide to do it anyway, but at least you are aware that you may cut your mouth or chip a tooth in the process. This situation is the same in that the federal government is aware that a bridge is not adequate enough for its task, however it differs in one key way. Unlike when someone warns you not to try opening a bottle with your teeth, the government is not warning you about the danger of traveling on this outdated bridge and they most certainly have no intention of fixing or replacing the structure either.
The reason why is simple. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2014, a total of 71,908 bridges were labeled functionally obsolete. With that number, about 12 percent of the nation’s bridges would fall into this category and the cost to replace or bring those structures up to current standards would be in the billions. As our structures get older, are neglected longer and stressed further, more bridges must be added to the obsolete list each year. Meanwhile, all funds for repairing our dangerously aging and overused infrastructure are saved for the truly desperate cases, or worse, rebuilding efforts only after a bridge failure has taken place. Another terrible fact is that those numbers may actually be even higher. After the Mississippi River Bridge collapse in 2007, it was discovered that the National Bridge Inventory Database records may be outdated or inaccurate.
January 19, 2015 – I-75 Bridge (Hopple Street Overpass) Collapse – Cincinnati, Ohio
A construction worker lost his life and a truck driver was injured in a bridge collapse when the Hopple Street overpass suddenly fell. The bridge was in the process of being demolished when it tumbled down, and while construction zone accidents are not uncommon, the circumstances surrounding this tragedy show that this bridge collapse was entirely avoidable.
One might assume that a bridge scheduled for demolition was likely already unstable but upon further review of the bridge collapse it became clear that the bridge itself did not experience a failure. It was at 10:30 p.m., a half hour before demolition was set to take place on that particular span, when the center portion of the bridge unexpectedly crashed down on the construction worker and semi driver. This project was a part of an overhaul of Interstate 75, a $2 billion project to redesign the highway and the construction company hired for this task at the price of $91 million was Kokosing Construction Co., Inc. However, even with a hefty price tag, this large company made a large mistake during the tear down process that directly caused the bridge collapse. Instead of removing the middle section of the bridge first and then demolishing the well supported sides afterward, Kokosing Construction made the decision to remove the sides first. By removing the connection of the eastern side of the bridge, the entire structure was undermined and primed for a bridge collapse, putting everyone working on the project or traveling under the unfinished bridge in serious danger. The center span falling due to overstressed joints was clearly a bridge failure waiting to happen.
How could they make such a mistake? The distressing fact is that this bridge collapse probably did not arise from a mistake at all, but a risky gamble that did not pay off. It has been revealed that for every 15 minutes the I-75 was closed because of this project, the construction company would have to pay $3,000 in penalties. The contractor most likely wanted to save time and money by removing the sides of the bridge first since they would have to entirely close the road below in order to work on the middle section of the overpass. But by removing a full side of the bridge before tackling the middle span, the company left a dangerously unsupported bridge jutting into thin air over a heavily trafficked highway that sees 200,000 vehicles daily and acts as a large national commercial route. This bridge failure could easily have been prevented, but as lawyers have all too often discovered, the ability to put profits above the safety of others is rampant.