Forest River Bridge Collapse

Forest River Bridge Collapse a Sign of Aging Infrastructure in America

An 11-ton wood plank bridge sits collapsed in Forest River, North Dakota after an overweight semi-truck hauling grain caused the bridge to break down. The truck is believed to be the cause of the bridge’s collapse, but questions have been raised about what role the aging bridge played in the collapse and about the overall degrading state of bridges in both the state and the country at large.

Semi Hauling Corn Was Over the Stated Bridge Weight Limit

The Forest River bridge collapse occurred at around 10:00 a.m. as Melvin Armbrust, a Forest River resident, drove a semi-truck packed with grain over the wood-planked bridge. The semi had nearly crossed the bridge when the beams below the trailer caved in, causing the cab of the vehicle to lift into the air. Images from the scene show the load of corn grain spilled into the river below.

Armbrust escaped the incident without injury, and officials stated a crane would remove the truck from the wreckage at a later date.

Sgt. Adam Dvorak with the North Dakota Highway Patrol said that the weight of Armbrust’s vehicle and its load were far greater than the posted weight limit for the bridge.

“Normally, an empty semi will weigh about 30,000 pounds,” Sgt. Dvorak said in an interview with the Bismarck Tribune. “He’s probably 80,000 pounds at least.”

Dvorak went on to say that it’s unusual for drivers to ignore the posted weight limits for bridges, but that even if an overweight vehicle crosses a bridge, collapse is not generally the outcome. Officials may pursue charges against Armbrust for his role in the bridge failure.

Forest River Bridge Was Labeled Structurally Deficient

The overweight semi was the catalyst for the bridge collapse, but it may not have happened had the bridge, which was built in 1911, been in better condition. When the Forest River bridge was last assessed in September of 2016, officials deemed it “structurally deficient,” but, like many bridges in the country, it was not scheduled for either repairs or replacements.

The Forest River bridge is one of 500 in the county. Sixty-four others are also labeled structurally deficient, while an additional 15 have received the mark of “functionally obsolete.” The term means that a bridge’s design is not up to the task it was intended for, though the Department of Transportation says that a bridge with that label could still be “perfectly safe and structurally sound.”

Bridge Collapses Can Be Triggers for Safety Reform

Bridges collapses like the Forest River bridge collapse can serve an unintended purpose of initiating important change in the safety of bridges in the area.

There’s perhaps no better example of this than the August 1, 2007, collapse of an Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis that plunged people into the Mississippi River below, killing 13 people and injuring another 145. The Minneapolis bridge had been deemed structurally deficient since 2005.

The tragic incident brought swift change to Minnesota’s bridge system, with authorities focusing efforts on improving and replacing structurally deficient bridges. Nine percent of all Minnesota’s bridges were structurally deficient at the time of the I35W bridge collapse, and by 2016 that number had fallen to six percent.

“Before the collapse, there was a ‘general sense’ that Minnesota’s bridges were deteriorating, but I don’t think (the public) had a real solid handle on the scope and scale of the problem,” state Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis said in an interview with Twin Cities.com.”The bridge collapse put a huge focus on that question.”

North Dakota may see similar change, with Tom Sorel, who was the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation during the period after the I35W bridge collapse, accepting a position as the head of the North Dakota Department of Transportation in July of 2017.

Structurally Deficient Bridges Common Across America

Far from being the exception, structurally deficient bridges are easy to find throughout the country. Data shows that one-fifth of bridges in rural areas are labeled as structurally deficient, and the American Society of Civil Engineers has given America’s bridges a C+ rating in their 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

Among the Report Card’s findings:

  • Four out of 10 American bridges are 50 years old or older.
  • The average bridge is 43 years old.
  • 9.1% of America’s bridges were rated as structurally deficient in 2016.
  • 188 million trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges each day.

The report card goes on to detail the need for a drastically increased investment in improving the country’s bridge system.

A safety issue in every state, potentially unsafe bridges are making more headlines as they age, with a recent Business Insider article detailing the most dangerous bridges in each state. It’s a sign that people are beginning to pay attention to the problem, and a potential indicator that people may begin pushing for change now instead of waiting for another deadly collapse.

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