1 August, 2007 Five Years Later Part II: Reactions to the Bridge Disaster and the Changes that occurred afterwards.

Salisbury Bridge in Meeker County. Photo taken in December 2010


Over the past week, there have been some extensive news coverage on the I-35W Bridge Disaster and the changes that we have seen in our policies for improving America’s infrastructure, not only in terms of replacing or repairing bridges that are structurally deficient, but also preserving the vintage structures that have a life after its service on the roadways. I too have collected some stories and comments from many people who are closely connected to the topic regardless of area of discipline they come from (engineering, media, etc.) The second part of the series features these comments and stories for you to read and mull over. This will offer you a chance to agree or disagree with the statements, as well as offer praises and suggestions for years to come. If you wish to view my thoughts on this story, please click here.

We start off with an official statement that was made by Transportation Commissioner Thomas K. Sorel, which made it to the newspapers all over the state of Minnesota:

On Aug. 1, 2007, the Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, a day that Minnesotans will never forget. Today marks the fifth anniversary of this unspeakable tragedy, which took the lives of 13 people, and left the lives of those who survived, forever changed.  The collapse had a significant effect on all Minnesotans. It also had a dramatic effect on the way in which we care for and manage the state’s transportation infrastructure.  

Since 2007, MnDOT has increased bridge maintenance staff and modified our inspection efforts to ensure that bridges with maintenance needs are identified and repaired in a timely fashion. We have developed a system in which we integrate bridge inspection information and maintenance work. This allows us to plan and prioritize our maintenance needs as well as document and assess the benefit of the work.  

We’ve changed our approach in building bridges by implementing a formal bridge design peer review process. MnDOT now hires separate engineering firms to review bridge designs, a step that is intended to minimize the risk of a critical design error like the one that caused the I-35W Bridge to fail.  We’ve also changed policies regarding storage of material on bridges under construction to ensure that the structure is not overloaded.  

We also worked hard to replace the I-35W Bridge with a new structure, built it in record time, using innovative contracting and building techniques. The result is a strong and stable structure that will serve the state for a century. And the lessons learned constructing that bridge will be used on other structures in Minnesota as well as around the nation.

Minnesota has made great strides in reducing the number of deficient state bridges through an improvement program funded by the 2008 State Legislature. That program has identified 120 bridges on the state system that need repair or replacement by 2018. To date, 65 of those bridges have been done, and another 12 will be completed by the end of the year. And the program is on track to meet its completion goals by 2018.

MnDOT is also focusing on innovation and looking beyond 2018 in how to fund and manage transportation infrastructure. The department is now using enterprise risk management to determine what, how and when we will work on the transportation system. We fold in quality of life research and sustainability considerations to ensure that the work that we do will sustain or improve transportation users’ quality of life efficiently and effectively.

Today it is important to reflect on and remember the tragic events of Aug. 1, 2007.  It is also important to look to the future, and continue our commitment to build a safe, dependable, high-quality transportation system through innovation, integrity and accountability. 

As I mentioned in my article from yesterday, the tragedy paved the way for improvements in technology designed to identify the flaws in each of the bridges and deal with them before we deal with the loss of lives. This also includes advance repairing methods designed to fix the areas in dire need without having to replace the entire bridge, which is most of the time more expensive than making the simple repairs to prolong their lifespan. This quote from Julie Bowers in a documentary on the restoration of the Piano Bridge says it all:

Engineering is a science that understands the variables and then addresses those in a systematic thoughtful way. What happened in Minnesota was a tragedy no one can say otherwise but there were a lot of circumstantial and compounding variable that led to that and there are truss bridges all over the world that will be continue to be successful. Here in Texas we take that opportunity to learn from that lesson and the loss of those lives to make sure that we are continuing to improve our inspection techniques our monitoring process to make sure that we never have that type of compounding of variables replicated into a tragic situation here. And this is the appropriate in my opinion direction to take to learn from that tragedy and make sure that you don’t replicate those circumstances in the future but not have some knee jerk hyperbole reaction to that.

Waterford Bridge: Awaiting a new abutment and decking before its reincorporation into a bike trail. Photo taken in August 2011

But Minnesota, like many other states in the country, also take care that this process of repairing and replacing bridges does not come at the expense of historic bridges. At least three dozen of the state’s historic bridges have been under the loop and most of them have been preserved for future generations, with more of them scheduled to be rehabilitated and reused for recreational purposes in the coming five years, like the Waterford Bridge south of Hastings and the Stillwater Lift Bridge.  This type of work is not necessarily a chore or a must, as John Barton of the Texas Department of Transportation explained in an interview with Julie Bowers while taping a documentary of the restoration of the Piano Bridge in Texas:

We consider it a privilege (….) to be a part of preserving this part of our history. We are in the transportation business and we take that responsibility very seriously and we feel blessed and honored to do that on behalf of the citizens of (….) the United States of America. Having the chance and opportunity to preserve these historic bridge structures. is something that we cherish so it is a labor of love for the staff that are involved in it, and it is a responsibility all of our engineering staff understand and shoulder proudly so the opportunity for us to be involved in that is something we are very proud of and appreciate very much. As time goes on and generations follow us, we fall back on that old story about the old bridge builder across a cavern and someone asked why he was doing it because he would probably never benefit greatly from it personally and he said he was building it for those that followed him. And that is our opportunity for us to preserve what has been built for those that will follow us. So we take it with a great deal of pride and we appreciate those that have a passion about doing that as well.

And finally, the media has taken this topic rather seriously when addressing on the one hand, bridges that are dangerously close to collapsing or have collapsed because of a lack of maintenance, but on the other hand, addressing the bridges that need to be restored, thus involving the people more than ever before. According to Kari Lucin of the Jamestown (ND) Sun, this phenomenon has its roots in watching the bridge disaster in Minneapolis unfold:

Before the bridge collapse I took bridges very much for granted. I used to go over the I-35 bridge pretty often during the four years I attended Augsburg College, and I never once entertained the thought it might not be entirely safe. Not once. When the thing collapsed I stayed glued to my TV set to the extent that I very nearly forgot to pay my monthly rent. And yes, I was one of many people who called relatives and friends to make sure they hadn’t been driving across when it fell, clogging up the phone lines. It was shocking. And after that, people took reports of bridge structural issues much more seriously.

And yes, were we glued to the tube and to the horn when all of this happened. I remember a comment mentioned by an official at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation during an e-mail correspondence prior to the disaster, which stated that many people are more concerned with getting from point A to point B without any regard to the bridges, let alone the historic bridges that have been disregarded and discarded into a heap of scrap metal. She was right, except since the tragedy, we have become more aware of what we are crossing and what we want to preserve because of the historic value that is useful for everyone to see.

Stillwater Lift Bridge: One of many bridges receiving the most media attention. This bridge is to become a bike/pedestrian bridge once the new bridge built south of Stillwater is open to traffic. Photo taken in 2009

We will still have people who ignore the plea of others and disobey weight and height restrictions and try to have things their way with a new bridge, but we have more people now that are aware of the value of these wonderful structures, and are willing to make them safe but appealing to others. And this includes preserving what is left of our past for the future to come.