Investigators are still working to determine whether poor maintenance, ongoing repair work or a combination of these or other factors led to Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis. At least four people were killed and 79 injured after eight-lane Interstate-35W, packed with rush-hour traffic, broke apart and fell into the Mississippi River. With as many as 30 people missing, divers shifted their efforts Thursday from rescue to recovery. Whatever the cause, the tragedy is a wakeup call to the deteriorating state of America's transportation system.
Survivors said the bridge shook, swayed and then buckled, sending dozens of cars 60 feet into the water and onto land below. In early reports, engineers said they were stumped why a bridge only 40 years old would suffer such a catastrophic failure. However, a 2005 federal review rated the bridge "structurally deficient," and a 2001 state study, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Thursday, found signs of "fatigue" cracking. But Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, while acknowledging those reports Thursday, said engineers saw no impending danger or the need to make immediate repairs to the bridge.
Something is wrong with the bureaucratic judgment and government priorities when a bridge deemed deficient remains open to bumper-to-bumper traffic. The governor and state engineers have more explaining to do: What was the state of the bridge supports? What impact did the weight of bridge traffic have? Were repairs to the deck of the bridge the pressing priority, and did that work aggravate any structural weakness in the overhead span?
Meanwhile, the nation must do what it can to prevent another tragedy like this. As U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said: "Bridges in America should not be falling down." The U.S. Government Accountability Office has warned for years - as recently as last month - that states and the federal government were skimping on repairs to the 47,000-mile interstate highway system. The GAO said the roughly $40-billion spent nationally to maintain highways every year was inadequate, and that the main funding source for the highway system - gas taxes - is not keeping pace with inflation, materials costs or growing traffic demands. This decline in purchasing power, the GAO noted, comes as more fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles emerge on the scene, which further undermines "the long-term viability of fuel taxes as the basis for financing transportation."
Congress and the states need to protect the nation's infrastructure. Tens of millions of Americans trust their lives to this system every day. The transportation system is the backbone of our economy. State and federal regulators also need to change their vocabulary so the word "deficient" means something. The governor looked awkward standing at the disaster scene trying to explain that the word conveys no real urgency. Sadly, from the sound of things, every governor in the nation could be in his place.