Falling Down

The I-35W Bridge Collapse Exposes Dangerous Deficiencies in the Nation's Transportation Infrastructure.

Chuck Hoffman was just seconds from plunging into the water.

The 60-year-old computer specialist from New Brighton had driven his green Subaru Forester over the bridge to solid ground as the 400-foot stretch of motorway collapsed behind him—splashing down some 10 stories into the Mississippi.

"I was going southbound at six o'clock, and I felt my car going up and down. Traffic was about 20 miles per hour. It was strange, like being on a diving board or something, and I thought 'What is going on?' I had no idea.

"And I glance in my rear view mirror, and I saw the bridge collapse right behind me. It just disappeared.

"I didn't know if more bridge was going to collapse, so I look forward, and I saw the bridge ahead of me undulating up and down, and I thought, 'This could collapse too.'

"I saw people going down—it was kind of over the brink from where I was. You could see cars on the other side going down.

"I was right on the edge when it all went down." —G.R. Anderson Jr.

WEST WING AND A PRAYER

President Bush didn't bother waiting until all the bodies had been recovered from the Mississippi river to politicize the disastrous collapse of the I-35W bridge at a morning press conference the day after the tragedy.

After briefly mentioning that Minneapolis was in his prayers and mispronouncing Governor Tim Pawlenty's name, Bush quickly segued into what appeared to be a previously planned speech haranguing Congressional Democrats for not sending him spending bills to sign, including an annual transportation appropriations bill.

Although Bush said the federal government "must respond robustly" to the bridge collapse, he used the majority of his airtime to argue against increasing federal spending, which could provide the money to shore up our crumbling transportation infrastructure.

"Massive tax hikes are the last thing the American people need," Bush said.

It was perhaps the president's most embarrassingly ill-timed performance since he strummed a guitar while New Orleans drowned. —Kevin Hoffman

BRIDGES ON THE BRINK

One of the more frightening pieces of information to emerge shortly after the disaster is that many of the state's bridges are in even worse shape than the one that collapsed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation ranks bridges on a 100-point scale in terms of structural adequacy. According to an April 2005 report by the agency's Bridge Management Unit, 72 bridges in the seven-county metro area scored 50 or lower, marking them structurally deficient.

The I-35W bridge that collapsed scored an even 50. In other words, there are 71 other bridges in the metro area that were considered more likely to falter. —Paul Demko

SHORT CHANGED

Elwyn Tinklenberg, who served as the state's transportation commissioner under Jesse Ventura, says the I-35W bridge collapse is emblematic of an eroding, underfunded transportation system.

He points to a recent MNDOT assessment, which concludes that the state is underfunding transportation maintenance by a billion dollars a year.

"That is not sustainable," Tinklenberg says. "We can't afford to do that and expect our system to continue to perform safely."

So, what to do? Tinklenberg calls for a gasoline tax hike. The last time the state raised the gas tax—which stands at 20 cents a gallon and is a key component of the state's transportation budget—was in 1988. In May, Governor Pawlenty vetoed a five-cent gas tax increase, saying such a hike would be "untimely and misguided." —Jonathan Kaminsky

UNBUILDING THE BRIDGE

Investigators looking into what caused the collapse will have an invaluable tool at their disposal: a computer model of the I-35W bridge that an employee of the Federal Highway Administration designed while pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

National Transportation Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker declined to provide the name of the FHA employee responsible for creating the computer model, but estimated that the program's existence will save investigators months of work.

"We'll take apart every one of the elements (in the model bridge) that creates the picture we now know," Rosenker said. "This will speed up our understanding of which one of the components failed." —Matt Snyders

SQUINTING TOWARD SAFETY

So exactly how do you inspect a bridge that hangs 60 feet above a river?

Bridge inspections, it turns out, are a decidedly low-tech procedure, according to transportation department officials in Wisconsin and North Dakota. Essentially, they're a more complicated version of a pilot's walk-around of a plane before takeoff. Inspections are primarily visual: a crew visits the site and inspects the structure for obvious flaws—corrosion, cracks in the steel or concrete, or peeling paint that could lead to corrosion.

The crews are small. For a bridge the size of I-35W, a crew of two to four would be typical, and they could be on the job for several days.

Before beginning, inspectors familiarize themselves with the bridge and past inspection reports, which could include photos and even hand-drawn sketches of problem areas.

Many parts of the bridge can be inspected from some distance away. The most important parts of the bridge—including "fracture critical" components at stress points, whose failure could spell trouble for the bridge—are viewed more closely, ideally from an arm's length away.

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