It’s every commuter’s nightmare scenario: During a crowded evening rush hour, the I-35 west bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing at least nine people and injuring dozens more.
Drivers told reporters about being stuck in their cars as one section of bridge after another gave way and dropped into the river below.
Rescue crews are still working, and investigators are trying to figure out the cause of the catastrophic failure. Inspections in 2005 and 2006 pointed to some minor problems, but gave it a clean bill of health. The bridge had an atypical structural design, but no one knows whether a design flaw or maintenance problem is to blame. FBI officials said that there are no signs of terrorism. We offer our condolences to the grieving families. We also believe the bridge failure could remind Americans about the deep-seated problems with the country’s aging infrastructure. For instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported, in its last report card on the condition of America’s bridges, that “As of 2003, 27.1 percent of the nation’s bridges (160,570) were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.” That’s a slight improvement from 2000, when 28.5 percent were deficient, but the number of troubled bridges is still an astounding one in four.
That rating doesn’t mean those bridges are necessarily unsafe, but structurally deficient bridges require closed lanes or other restrictions and are a sign of advancing safety problems. Beyond obvious safety issues, there’s no doubt that the nation’s infrastructure is becoming more congested, as governments spend less money on the nuts-and-bolts issues that affect our lives and more on expansive bureaucracies and entitlement programs.
We’re concerned about adequate upkeep on existing infrastructure, but also about obsolete and inadequate roads and bridges. Congestion also leads to safety problems.
Most people call for more tax dollars to deal with pressing infrastructure needs. But even as budgets have grown, governments have shown an inability to set the right priorities. There aren’t too many organized lobbies pushing for better bridge safety and sewer improvements, but there are political groups that are well organized to push for higher benefits for themselves. In the world of government, infrastructure is relatively easy to ignore. Governments are notorious for their inability to manage resources effectively, which is why the Soviet experiment failed. Private owners have every incentive to maintain their properties, and face legal issues if they don’t. Government bureaucracies have no such incentives.
The obvious way to create safer and better managed infrastructure is to move toward a system of privately or quasiprivately owned or managed roads and bridges (think toll roads). It’s becoming all too apparent that bridges and roads are too important to leave to the public sector.