Bridge Collapse and National Priorities

Footage courtesy of WCCO, via YouTube.

This tragic collapse is a metaphorical one (watch the collapse here I’m disturbed by the Minneapolis bridge collapse. Each year, I show my students a program called “Collapse” that was produced about 10 years ago and it shows how poor design leads to disasters just like this. The video unravels each disaster and the cause of each is revealed to be some simple engineering oversight, like bolts that were manufactured improperly (Tacoma Narrows Bridge), or too few drainage ports (Kemper Arena).

Undoubtedly the NTSB and other agencies will investigate the cause of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and undoubtedly, the cause will likely be something simple, and will — in time, become a ‘closed’ case. While the case may be closed in engineering terms, the case may never close for the families affected by this disaster.

As I write this, a bit of speculation regarding vibration from a passing train contributed to the collapse.

That’s unacceptable.

The US infrastructure is crumbling. Last month I took a train from Zürich, Switzerland to Schwarzenberg, Austria. The train trip of about 135km, cost US $40, and took percisely 3 hours and 43 minutes on a comfortable and safe train. Each station was either amazing or charming, and each had basic services, a news stand, and working toilets, and was in good repair. The train (operated by DB, the German rail service in conjunction with SBB and ÖBB, the Swiss and Austrian train services respectively) was on time, and arrived at each stop as scheduled. Amazingly efficient, considering the number of actors involved, and the cross-border nature of the journey.

In contrast, this past week, I was a passenger on an Amtrak train from Rochester, NY to Westport, NY. The 311km journey (longer) cost US $56 (cheaper per mile), took 6 hours and 47 minutes (about 27% slower per mile), and was 2 hours behind schedule. The stations were desolate, ill equipped, poorly staffed, dirty, and one (Rochester) did not have working toilets. Amazingly inefficient, considering the number of actors involved. What was perhaps most distrubing was the condition of the infrastructure immediately adjacent to the train — really old, literally crumbling, and poorly maintained. In fact, the last 25 miles of the journey, the train could not exceed 20mph because the signals on that stretch of track were “out”.

So why does our train system suck? That’s a long and complicated answer, but it’s part of a larger answer concerning the national infrastructure. I would envision a conversation on a national level that heavily relies on regional alliances of states to work together to undertake innovative public works projects. For example, one of the reasons domestic passenger service is so poor in this country is because AMTRAK leases use of the tracks from the freight company CSX that owns them. Naturally CSX trains have priority on their own track. Seems a little backward, but I digress… Why not design interstate roads with railbeds along the center, rather than a grassy median? States could lease the use of this track to regional transit authorities to run commuter rail service and private companies could lease the track to provide competitive passenger rail service. The immediate payoff would be substantial and could be measured not only in terms of dollars, but also in terms of declining greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, I envision a national network of high speed interstate toll roads with excellent and complimentary customer service (towing, fix-a-flat, etc.) and driver assistance (like VDOT’s 511 program in Vermont), with excellent food services, roadside motels, shopping, local farm vendors, and other stops in enhanced service plazas along the way. I drive between Rochester and Buffalo quite frequently (usually once a week or so) and the poor winter maintainence of the Interstate 90 is an abomination. In fact, at least twice in recent memory, I recall people (many people) spending the nights sleeping in cold cars because the roads were not clear enough to pass. Though the Thurway Authority can employ thousands to collect nickels and dimes for driving on the road, and there are cops galore just waiting to pull you over for going 67 in a 65 zone, it never ceases to amaze me that they can’t seem to have more than one or two people out plowing or maintaining that same stretch of road at any given time. Why not charge a higher toll to provide what would seem to be essential services like snow plowing and maintainence?

Clearly our transportation system is, as Harry Reid noted today, on the brink of disaster. It’s our civic responsibility to call upon our legislators and elected officials to use our tax dollars to support the civil infrastructure, and not the civil infrastructure of countries on the other side of the globe. As we saw yesterday, the answer is thinking creatively, and proactively as simply “maintaining” the roads, bridges, and systems that were built 50 years ago isn’t a solution.

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