Aging Bridges, a National Concern
Bridge failures are on the rise because of an aging and fragile infrastructure. Bridges built more than 50 years ago remain in service despite years of neglect, allowing the damages that time wreaks upon such old structures to continue without inspection and repair. Federal programs created to inspect and maintain these structures are often understaffed, underfunded and unable to identify hazards and defects until after a bridge collapse has already happened.
For example, the Mississippi River Bridge collapse that happened in Minneapolis, Minnesota on August 1st, 2007 was caused by a design flaw that allowed improperly sized gusset plates to be installed. As a result, flaws in the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge went undetected for 40 years until the weight of cars during rush hour traffic caused eight of the plates to fracture and tear. The resulting bridge collapse sent drivers and their vehicles plunging more than 100 feet into the Mississippi, killing 13 and injuring 145. The gusset plates specified in the bridge’s design were undersized and unable to properly support the weight of the bridge, a weight that only increased with time as more cars and trucks crossed the bridge every year, and as more cement was added to the roadway.
This design flaw went unnoticed from the time of the bridge’s construction in the 1960’s to the date of its collapse, despite decades of repeated inspections, including one in 2003 during which an inspector even took a photograph that illustrated the gusset plates bowing under stress. Within days of the bridge collapse, inspections were increased across the country to look for similar design flaws. Sadly, such measures are too little, too late for those who tragically lost their lives that day.
Bridge Collapse Due to Structural Changes
Another problem with our nation’s bridges is that many of the bridges have been changed, redesigned or altered in order to serve new and varied purposes. A serious lack of oversight and an inability to communicate among different safety departments, has proven to be a recipe for more bridge failures.
This issue was at the heart of the bridge collapse over the Big Bayou Canot near Saraland, Alabama, on September 22, 1993. A barge pilot became disoriented in heavy fog and struck the partially unfinished railway bridge over the Big Bayou Canot, which caused the track to kink and move about three feet out of alignment. The bridge was left unfinished and improperly fastened so that the owners could install a swing bridge at a later date. While the damage caused by the barge did move the tracks, none of the rails were actually broken, so the track circuit did not register the problem and signal for the train to stop. When the Sunset Limited train reached the kink, it derailed. The speed and force of the train locomotive slamming into the gap in the rails caused a full bridge collapse that took the rest of the train down into the water. The locomotive’s fuel tanks ruptured and then exploded into flames, ending the lives of 47 people and injuring 103 people onboard. After the crash, the NTSB suggested that both barge companies and the U.S. Coast Guard needed to establish higher standards for licensing and competency. The NTSB also stated the need for a national risk assessment program to identify bridge failures that may arise due to collision damage from marine vessels. Our firm represented 22 passengers, including both injured and killed, in this bridge collapse.
This bridge collapse highlighted a complete lack of communication and cooperation between three federal agencies tasked with safety oversight of the railroads, bridges and waterways. Proper communication and interdepartmental awareness could have prevented this bridge collapse and save many lives; however sometimes even proper communication and awareness of defects is not enough to prevent bridge failures.
Bridge Failures Despite Federal Oversight
A tragic case exemplifying this issue was the Skagit River Bridge collapse on May 23, 2013 near Mount Vernon, Washington. An oversized load on a big rig truck hit a support beam while travelling on the bridge, causing part of the structure to fall into the water. Three people driving on the bridge at the time were also thrown into the water below, but, miraculously, no one was killed. The horrifying part of this story is that at the time of the collapse the almost 60 year-old bridge was listed in the National Bridge Inventory as “functionally obsolete,” meaning that the bridge’s aging design made it unsuitable for its current use. Therefore, the federal government was already alert to the fact that the Skagit River Bridge could not stand up to today’s traffic volume, speed, size or weight, but did not order the roadway to be closed. Even more egregiously, the bridge was also labeled as “fracture critical,” meaning that if any main structural member failed, it could put the entire bridge at risk. This is because there were no extra support structures built as fail-safes in the event one of the integral supports gave way.
These types of designs were deemed unsafe and discontinued in the 1970s, yet bridges that were constructed prior to that date were left in use with no plans to make safety upgrades. These fracture critical designs leave large bridges extremely vulnerable to collapse during even the smallest of collisions with ships or larger trucks. Such collisions had been consistently reported as causing damage to the bridge since 1979. But despite these very obvious red-flags, the Skagit River Bridge was left unaltered, without so much as a warning sign for oversized vehicles crossing over at their own risk.
Bridge Failures During Natural Disasters
These same red flags came to light when the Tex Wash Bridge on the I-10 freeway near Desert Center collapsed during a flash flood after unusually heavy rain in California on July 19, 2015. One person was injured and hundreds of motorists were stranded after the east bound lanes gave way. This portion of the I-10, located in Caltrans District 8, is the main travel route between Phoenix and Los Angeles, with about 20,000 cars traveling on it every day, yet the nearly 50 year-old bridge was labeled “functionally obsolete” in the National Bridge Inventory last year. The bridge collapse occurred after flooding waters undermined its structure. However, even a completely unexpected natural event, like record breaking rain, must be taken into consideration when designing and maintaining a bridge. Much heavier rains hit bridges and roads across the U.S. year-round without causing bridge failures. This type of event speaks to poor design, maintenance, or government oversight.
As you can see, there are many factors involved in a bridge collapse, but there is only one constant—these disasters should not occur under any circumstance and the parties at fault for allowing such events to occur need to be held accountable.
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