Politics & Policy

Into the River

Minnesota's collapse and the road ahead.

This shouldn’t be happening in Minnesota. That thought kept racing through my head last night after I heard about the catastrophic collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis.

#ad#Ironically, I first heard about it in a call from my father in California — where earthquakes can reduce even the strongest bridges and overpasses to rubble. I lived there in 1994, when the Northridge quake killed dozens and destroyed sections of major freeways. In 1989, the Bay Area quake killed scores of motorists when a double-deck freeway span collapsed just before the start of the World Series.

Minnesota does not get earthquakes. Bridges do not collapse here. Yet here I was, spending the first half hour finding my family, and the next several hours thinking about all of our neighbors who couldn’t.

People do not realize how small this community can be. Put together, the populations of Minneapolis and Saint Paul only total 650,000. Almost half of the state’s population lives in this metropolitan area, but that only amounts to 2.5 million residents. When a catastrophe like this happens, the ripples touch nearly everyone.

So far, we appear to have luck on our side. As of this writing, the confirmed death toll dropped from nine to four, with no explanation. We expect that number to rise, now that the sun has come up and rescuers start probing the debris and the river for those who could not escape. No one believes we will find any more survivors, and at least 20 people may still be missing.

Part of the reason the death toll may remain low is how the collapse occurred. The bridge was originally named the St. Anthony Bridge for the nearby waterfalls and for the patron saint of travelers. The center section went straight down into the Mississippi, staying mostly level. Its steel underpinnings held up well enough to keep the deck above the surface of the river, and several cars remained on the concrete that may have wound up under debris otherwise. When watching the video, it almost seems as if the bridge did its best to protect travelers even in its last moments.

Nevertheless, Minnesotans already want to know how the unthinkable happened to one of its most critical traffic structures. The power of the Digital Age started showing itself in the first hours of the tragedy. News organizations found reports on prior bridge inspections on the Internet, one of which noted the bridge “has many poor fatigue details on the main truss and floor truss system.” Other reports came to light shortly afterwards, including more recent inspections that classified the bridge as “structurally deficient.”

State officials quickly clarified that engineers didn’t recommend any immediate action as part of those inspections, but the issue will not disappear quietly. Minnesotans have had a long-running debate over infrastructure funding. Two former Minnesota transportation officials appeared on local television to decry the neglect towards these systems over the last few years. The debate had mostly remained in the hallways of the capital, but we can expect a big political fight over this now, one that will involve tax policy and budget control as well.

In fact, it might prompt similar discussion throughout the country. Minnesota actually ranks well nationally in bridge maintenance. Only three percent of our bridges are rated structurally deficient, and the Department of Transportation ranks us 11th on this standard. Other states have far higher numbers of deficiency, including Rhode Island (23 percent), Michigan (17 percent), and Pennsylvania (15 percent).

Undoubtedly, though, our state will lead this debate. After all, this shouldn’t be happening in Minnesota. It shouldn’t happen anywhere else, either.

— Edward Morrissey blogs at “Captain’s Quarters.”

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