August 2, 2007

This Could Have Waited

It's not that I completely disagree with Nick Coleman in today's Star Trribune. In some ways, I agree with what he has to say. But was this the time to say this?

The death bridge was "structurally deficient," we now learn, and had a rating of just 50 percent, the threshold for replacement. But no one appears to have erred on the side of public safety. The errors were all the other way.

Would you drive your kids or let your spouse drive over a bridge that had a sign saying, "CAUTION: Fifty-Percent Bridge Ahead"?

No, you wouldn't. But there wasn't any warning on the Half Chance Bridge. There was nothing that told you that you might be sitting in your over-heated car, bumper to bumper, on a hot summer day, thinking of dinner with your wife or of going to see the Twins game or taking your kids for a walk to Dairy Queen later when, in a rumble and a roar, the world you knew would pancake into the river.

No, it wasn't. First, we don't even know what caused the collapse. It might be better to wait on finger-pointing until we know where to point. What if the problem wasn't maintenance but design and overloading? That combination may be the problem, or it could be something else entirely.

And wouldn't it be better to wait until the bodies are out of the water to start screeching at the public officials who should be concentrating on the rescue and recovery efforts? I'd prefer to have MnDOT, Tim Pawlenty, and the NTSB focused on the job at hand, not answering a lot of questions about the meaning of "structural deficiencies" at the moment. There will be plenty of time for that later.

I actually agree with Coleman on a couple of points. The state and the cities should not be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on stadiums for the professional sports teams. That money should either get returned to the taxpayers or spent on legitimate government responsibilities. There is no doubt that infrastructure maintenance is a legitimate government function, and bridge maintenance should be one of the higher priorities in that arena.

But we can talk about all of this later, when the bodies are recovered and we know why the bridge fell. Screeching at the top of our lungs in support of our favorite hobby horses is not only counterproductive, it's a cynical exploitation of human tragedy. The Strib should be ashamed.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference This Could Have Waited:

» Bush Conflates the Issues from Blue Collar Heresy
That title should read: “Bush proves yet again that no tragedy is too horrible, or too recent, to be used for partisan propaganda”…. but it might not fit on the header, so “Bush Conflates the Issues” it is. You might thi... [Read More]

Comments (23)

Posted by pat | August 2, 2007 7:19 PM

And Coleman is wrong, to boot. The bridge was given a score/rating of fifty out of 120, not fifty percent.

Posted by cirby | August 2, 2007 7:28 PM

That's the problem with building large things.

Large constructions create large opportunities for failure.

Especially when you go a bit out of the way to do something "different" when building them - like designing a suspension bridge with a relatively thin deck in a windy valley ("Galloping Gertie"), or making a huge central span on a bridge to keep a river clear, as in this week's story.

Then, once you build it, you have to make sure it stays in good condition. So you inspect it, and fix the little stuff, and sooner or later, it starts to show its age. So you have a choice: shut down a major traffic artery until you can completely inspect and renovate it - or tear it down and build a new one.

How would you like to be the guy who, in 50 years or so, tells the people in charge of the Millau Viaduct that they have to tear it down and start over? Or the Burj Dubai, in about 2150?

Posted by piscivorous | August 2, 2007 8:01 PM

It is the best time to say such things. It is the time when there is the most interest and largest audience. There is a serious underinvestment in basic infrastructure which many have been saying for years and have essentially been ignored. So I say let the hounds bay now while the focus is intense.

Posted by Master of None | August 2, 2007 8:04 PM

When you get your brakes inspected, and they say your pads are at 50%, do you get them replaced immediately? Or do you make note to keep an eye on them and get them replaced some time down the road?

Posted by NahnCee | August 2, 2007 8:16 PM

There was an article in yesterday's LA Times about a newly-built municipal swimming pool, and how unhappy the Mexicans living in the neighborhood around it are, that their "hot sweaty" children haven't been invited to use it, presumably for free, since there are other pools in Los Angeles where for a small fee the public (including the hot sweaty children of Mexican taco vendors) are allowed in.

The article annoyed me for the same reasons it always annoys me when illegal brown people who were never invited here in the first place are demanding something for nothing, assuming that me and all my fellow American taxpayers are delighted to pick up the tab for making their hot sweaty children more comfortable.

However, this time the sparkling clean municipal pool that is off-limits to people who haven't paid for it was juxtaposed with a collapsed bridge in Minnesota, and burgeoning concerns about our infrastructure across the country. Couldn't this bridge just be the first demonstrably proof of what happens when you have literally millions of invaders in our country using an infrastructure that was built decades ago to be used by half the people who are currently using our freeways, bridges, buses, trains, and airports? Not to mention the electric grid and water supplies.

It will be wonderful irony if America is finally brought to its knees not by Muslim terrorists blowing stuff up, but by illegal Mexicans using stuff up beyond its due date.

Posted by Cindy | August 2, 2007 8:21 PM

MoN - the people who know better (the structural engineers who do the inspecting) said that the designation of "structurally deficient" just meant that it was something to keep an eye on. Now to you and I that makes no sense, but to engineers it makes sense. Also, as Pat pointed out, it was NOT scored at 50%. It was given a score of 50 out of 120 POINTS. Miniscule difference to some, but again it is a difference that makes all the difference in the world to the "experts".


Posted by Ned R. | August 2, 2007 8:37 PM

Screeching at the top of our lungs in support of our favorite hobby horses is not only counterproductive, it's a cynical exploitation of human tragedy.

Agreed -- it has to be said, though, I've seen far too much of it over these last few years in particular. I remember a comment made to friends right after 9/11 that a hell of a lot of axes were going to be reground by plenty of people across the spectrum. So it proved within very little time, and the years have not made the overall situation much better no matter the subject.

Posted by jaeger51 | August 2, 2007 8:40 PM

Oh just you wait. Yes, the infrastructure probably DOES need repair...but it will be used by the bureaucrats to justify new tax increases. Remember how they always claim they will have to cut back on the police and fire departments because they just don't have enough money unless your taxes are raised...but never seem to run out of money for the transgender memorial or the free giveaways for those who aren't even supposed to be here? Just you wait...soon there will be a groundswell of politicians calling for new taxes to repair our aging infrastructure,,,,,,,you heard it here first.

Posted by Lightwave | August 2, 2007 8:50 PM

Keep a running tab of the following:

1) Those righteously indignant folks who are attacking local, state, and federal governments and accusing them of trying to score political points off of the World Trade Center collapsing,


2) Those righteously indignant folks who are attacking local, state, and federal governments and are trying to score political points off of the 35W bridge collapsing.

Those lists should match up almost identically...and they should be the usual suspects on the left.

Ed, in all seriousness, after Keith Ellison, CAIR, and the Great Taxi Jihad, can you even possibly be surprised the Strib is taking potshots already?

I'm not. Not in the least.

Posted by zipity | August 2, 2007 9:02 PM

eh. Nick Coleman falls into the category of morons I hate, but won't go piss on his grave when he dies......but that's mostly because I hate standing in long lines.....

Posted by ron k | August 2, 2007 9:55 PM

it might be a good idea to wait until they publish a reason for the collapse, everyone is jumping to conclusions with no facts to base it on.

Posted by TLabamigo | August 2, 2007 10:18 PM

We all know that this tragedy will be exploited and billions of dollars in taxes will be extracted to "repair" many a bridge that is structurally sound. I heard today that there was a 'warning' about this very bridge in 1990. 1990!! That was 17 years ago. Do we tear down every bridge in the US that might fail in 17 years?

Road construction is one of the political class's favorite ways to soak taxpayers and generate graft. The contracts go to the politically connected firms that kickback to the politicians who pulled the strings to assure that they were chosen for the job. Eventually, after cost overruns and delays, its finally finished and they slap some pol's name on the beast so you can genuflect to Sen. Forhorn every time you drive across it.

Posted by bridgeguy | August 2, 2007 10:51 PM

The time is always wrong if you try to hang someone on a technical basis without first finding out what the technical terms mean. I've been an engineer for over thirty years and a bridge safety engineer in Connecticut for over twenty.

A quick primer on the federal system's terms of concern - "functionally obsolete" and "structurally deficient". "Functionally obsolete" simply means the bridge no longer meets current design standards for the traffic carried. A bridge built in 1940 with a curb to curb width of 30 FT and an average daily traffic (ADT) of 3000 vehicles easily exceeded the then current standards. However if the ADT in 2007 has grown to 30,000 vehicles it is now "functionally obsolete". Similar if the standards are made more restrictive, that will also make a bridge "functionally obsolete".

"Structurally deficient" is the term people are reacting to now; most, like Mr. Coleman, appear to assume that it means imminent failure, which while possible, is not necessarily true. The structural rating of a bridge has 2 primary parts - its condition rating and its load rating. The condition rating in the federal system varies from 0 (very bad, bridge failed) to 9 (excellent, no deficiencies). General categories are Good (7 thru 9), Fair (5-6), and Poor (0 thru 4). Whereas a 4 is Poor, indicating the bridge is developing serious problems, it in no way implies the bridge is near collapse. As an example that most people can relate to - if your roof leaks whenever there is a particularly heavy rain, this is a 4 Poor condition. This can go on for a long time before your house has deteriorated to the degree that it is unsafe. In the mean time it will continue to degrade and receive even lower Poor ratings. A 3 rating results in serious concern; 2 gets urgent concern; and a 1 rating sets off panic alarms. None of these really low ratings seem to apply to the failed bridge, but any Poor rating will make it "structurely deficient". The other half of the structural rating is the load capacity of the bridge. Say a bridge was built in 1890 for horse and buggy type traffic. Although it is well maintained and in Good condition, because it can only carry 6 ton vehicles instead of the standard 20 ton vehicles due to its dated original design, it too is "structurally deficient". No load restrictions seem to apply in this case either.

As to what caused the present collapse, we have almost no information. I have not seen adequate photos to even identify the full structural set up, much less what went wrong. Fatigue cracks in the steel have been mentioned but it appears that repairs have been made to the serious ones and the others monitored. Generally failures of this kind lead to fairly localized failures, generally limited to one span or part of a span. One news report suggested concern for a possible failure of a river pier. Such a failure is more likely to lead to multiple span collapse, like dominos. (See the Schoharie Creek bridge collapse near Albany, NY a few years back.)

Posted by bulbasaur | August 2, 2007 10:56 PM

Out of state readers might get a chuckle to know that Governer Jesse Ventura used to call Nick Coleman by the Soviet sounding pseudonym Nikolai Kolmanoff.

Sounds to me like Nikolai is piling on. A real class act.

Posted by bridgeguy | August 2, 2007 11:00 PM

As to Mr. Coleman's special concern for the 50 out of 120 rating. The article doesn't name the rating, but I believe it is the Bridge Sufficiency Rating. In that case, a really bad bridge scores in the 15 to 20 point range. A 50 point rating is about where the feds consider providing some funding.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | August 2, 2007 11:13 PM

bridgeguy said:

"One news report suggested concern for a possible failure of a river pier. "

What was the actual water level in the river at the time of the collapse? I can't imagine the river at this time of year doing enough work to undermine the river pier supports, which have lasted for 40 years.

Was there unusual river activity over the past few months (like during "spring runoff") that could have done such erosion of the piers?

Posted by Ron Coleman | August 2, 2007 11:15 PM

There's a big "premium" in being the first at anything in journalism, Ed. This so-called Coleman hasn't got much chance of filling up with premium for anything else.

Posted by Bob Smith | August 2, 2007 11:26 PM

It's not just the stadiums. How about the hundreds of millions of dollars Minneapolis wants to spend on a useless light rail light? Light rail is a boondoggle if I ever saw one, a terrible waste of money everywhere they're constructed.

Posted by Hugh Beaumont | August 3, 2007 12:49 AM

DOT's in most states are ground zero of political graft.

Check out the exits on the interstates, count how many exist in each county and you'll figure out which state politicians have the most pull.

Then research the owners of the retail shops and gas station that thrive around interstate exits and their relationships to the representative at
the state capital.

Then read 'TLabamigo 's post above to round out your education in the state DOT/political graft nexus.

Don't let anyone tell you there's not enough money to maintain the infrastructure.

To paraphrase a great Lincoln quote " sending money to the state DOT departments is like shoveling fleas across a barnyard; not half of them get there".

Posted by Clyde | August 3, 2007 7:19 AM

It's all about placing blame.

Someone MUST be at fault, you see. Someone we oppose, someone we don't like, someone whose views are different from our own. They must have deliberately allowed this disaster to happen, just as Bush caused Katrina to devastate New Orleans and nothing that that the mayor or governor could do could save those victims of the evil Bush regime.

Or, in this case, the evil Pawlenty regime, although I'm sure they'll work Evil Bush in somehow. The government is, after all, 100% responsible for our safety, and nothing less than perfection is acceptable. If something bad happens, it's not OUR fault that we lived in a city that was below sea level and that we didn't use those school buses to evacuate the city. No, it's Evil Bush's fault! If a bridge collapses, it's not the fault of the wonks at the DOT, it's obviously the governor's fault, never mind the fact that the bridge was ruled "structurally deficient" some 16 YEARS before he was elected!

And if we went out and replaced every bridge that wasn't in perfect shape, do you even want to know what your tax bill would be, or what the gasoline tax to maintain the roads would be? Hint: Think $5 a gallon gasoline... Or more. "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

But there are no perfectly safe roads or bridges or anything else. Life is a series of risks, calculated or not. You take a risk of being killed every time you get in your car or leave your house, and there are risks to staying at home, too, like fires and tornadoes and hurricanes and yes, even falling down and not being able to get up.

Newsflash: Bad things will continue to happen to people who don't deserve them. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as bloviators call for investigations into why the unforeseen disasters were not foreseen. The only alternative is to pack us all into those full-body protective fake sumo wrestler suits, "for our own protection," courtesy of the liberal nanny state.

/rant off

Posted by Nick | August 3, 2007 7:55 AM

No kidding. It's totally unhelpful to just point fingers in general.

BUT, it's also unhelpful to suggest that spending on sports stadiums somehow trades off funding for bridge maintenance. It doesn't. For one thing, cities almost always fund stadiums while states fund transportation. For another, it's not a matter of fix the bridge OR build a stadium. You can do both...the projects aren't mutually exclusive, they're totally unrelated. You seem to represent the opposite.

Posted by Bithead | August 3, 2007 10:09 AM

And wouldn't it be better to wait until the bodies are out of the water to start screeching at the public officials who should be concentrating on the rescue and recovery efforts?

I would think the answer to that question to be blindingly obvious:

The Democrats desperately need a talking point that they can latch onto before the election. So, between now and then, we’re going to hear about how Minneapolis is all the fault of the Republicans and their tax cuts, which of course has a translation that all Americans will understand as uniquely Democrat party:

You’re not paying enough taxes.

I think you know the correct response to that one, don't you?

I mean, we're first asked to believe that additional spending would have solved the issue in Minneapolis. I submit we are nowhere near that conclusion as yet.

Even if true, and as a counter to Coleman I submit that that bridge went down yesterday not because of a lack of taxes, but because of a lack of funds after all the social programs got paid off. We are told the problem is is that we're not paying enough taxes. If in fact, as the democrats propose, taxes are a zero sum game, then is it not equally plausible to say that infrastructure funds got diverted to social spending programs, which in turn killed those people?

Putting it in a slightly different direction, I suggest that bridge in Minneapolis went down the other day under the weight of the social spending programs the state is forced to divert its money to.

Besides which; the democrats and held sway in Minnesota for some years now, and it held sway in Congress with few exceptions for the last hundred 50 years. In all that time, infrastructure spending has been going down, in favor of social spending. Please explain to me how it is we are supposed to accept that any increase in taxes imposed now in suppose it responds to this problem, is actually going to get spent on infrastructure? Certainly, there is no history to indicate that.

Indeed, there is much in the way of history indicating exactly the opposite, and just recently, at that:

# The state bailout of the Minneapolis Teacher’s Retirement Fund, which puts state taxpayers on the hook for $972 million in unfunded liabilities

# A new $776 million Twins Stadium to be paid for with a Hennepin County sales tax increase—(approved by state legislators with no voter referendum)

# $97.5 million for the Northstar Commuter Rail line

# $34 million in subsidies to ethanol producers that have seen a 300 percent increase in profits in the last year

# $30 million for bear exhibits at the Minnesota and Como Zoos

# $12 million to renovate the Shubert Theater in downtown Minneapolis

# $1 million for a replica Vikings ship in Moorhead

# $500,000 for a skating rink in Roseville

# $310,000 for a Shakespeare festival in Winona

# $129,000 for state art grants for North Dakota museums and theaters

All of this, from the Minnesota state budget. This is not a lack of taxes issue this is a typical Democrat fiscal irresponsibility issue, if we're to believe their complaint that the additional money would have solved the problem, which is still an open question.

But, you know, I have to say something here; if the democrats really want to run through this next cycle on a platform of raising your taxes, I say, "bring it on".

This will be the easiest and biggest victory for Republicans since Mondale, and Dukakas tried the same trick.

Posted by Pro Cynic | August 3, 2007 10:13 AM

I've been trying to trackback to Captain's Quartes without success -- not sure what he problem is -- from a post I just did on US bridge accidents.

There have been at least three major incidents in the past 70 years -- San Francisco-Oakland Bay (due to earthquake), Sunshine Skyway (hit by a ship) and Tacoma Narrows (mechanical resonance). Oddly, no one is talking about Tacoma Narrows. I believe there have been more, and many more near-misses besides -- I-90 west of Cleveland over Rocky River a few years ago comes to mind -- but there is not a compendium of them that's easy to find.

Bottom line is that we don't know just yet. It mightbe nothing anyone has even thought of, like Tacoma Narrows ended up being.

On an unrelated note. Nick's point abut stadiums should be well taken. The state maintains the roads, the Cities the sports stadiums. Finally, if you don't want to spend the money on the sports teams, then you don't want professional sports in Minneapolis. There are plenty of other cities that will spend the money. Not a pleasant reality, but there it is.

Post a comment