this as a pet peeve, but it bugs me when politicians, including Christine Gregoire, wave the bloody shirt of the Minnesota bridge collapse as an all-purpose rationale to boost infrastructure spending. Gregoire has done this often. She raised the specter of the Minnesota disaster as an argument in favor of Proposition 1 last fall
; she raised it again to argue for a new toll bridge
across the Columbia River, and yet again at a national governor's meeting in February. I have no quarrel with repairing or inspecting roads and bridges — please, let's do that. But the fact is, we still don't have the final word on what happened in Minnesota, so the lesson there is unclear.
Even so, evidence is mounting that it wasn't simple neglect. The National Transportation Safety Board's interim report indicates the Minnesota bridge had a major design flaw: weak gusset plates at key points and no redundancy. Just a couple of weeks ago, the NTSP released the results of new simulation tests
that indicate road work on the bridge may have caused the collapse. That work added massive amounts of weight over the weak sections, including 99 tons of sand. Stress at one of the bridge's weakest points was 83% more than it could hold. A second Minnesota bridge with bending gusset plates
was shut down by the state just last week. (For more on the Minnesota bridge collapse and details on its faulty design, check here
In the wake of the collapse, many people are pushing for major road building projects, but it seems like a tactic to use fear to scare up public support. We should design good roads and bridges and fix aging infrastructure, but let's not try and capitalize on disaster by conveying the idea that everything will crumble tomorrow if we don't cough up more billions for massive new projects.
And it's not as if Washington is falling behind the rest of the country. In fact, we're better than most. Washington gets one of the top grades in the nation for its state government in study released in early March
. It was conducted by the Pew Center for the States and Governing
magazine, and Washington got an A- for overall performance, with nice props for Gregoire. When it comes to infrastructure maintenance, Washington ranked in the top 11 with a B+. Sure, we could always go for A+, but the study hardly confirms a picture that we're falling to pieces here. (You can check the whole report here
Citing the Minnesota fiasco is a way to get the public to support road expansion and controversial new funding mechanisms, like widespread tolling and road pricing. Simple repair and retrofitting are rarely on the real agenda. Look at the 520 bridge or the Alaskan Way Viaduct disputes. If safety were the primary issue, we could simply replace or retrofit the structures at lower cost, but the agenda for new infrastructure always unleashes the drive for bigger and more--tough to do when federal highway funds are on the wane. The thing that's really on the verge of collapse is our ability to pay for over-sized ambitions.