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Are bridges safe? Nobody knows

And nobody important much cares.

By Will Offensicht  |  October 18, 2007

On August 30,2007, USA Today had a page 1 story, "Scores of Bridges 'deficient' since '80s" which says:

Dozens of the nation's highway bridges that fell into disrepair 25 years ago still need overhauls to fix cracks, corrosion, and other long-festering problems....

Some of the bridges ... appear not to have undergone major overhauls since they were listed as deficient in 1982.

These bridges have needed fixing for 25 years and they're still operating?   There are two points to ponder about bridges:

First, bridge inspectors are government employees.  A government bridge inspector would be out of his mind to say a bridge was OK.  Suppose it falls.  Even if the reason it fell had nothing to do with whatever he checked, he could get blamed.

If, on the other hand, he said it had problems, he's covered no matter what.  If it falls, he said it was "structurally deficient."  If it doesn't fall, he's OK because nobody will fix it anyway.  If someone does, he's still OK.  People who fix bridges also work for the government, they won't rat him out because government employees look out for each other.

Second, USA Today reports that transportation officials ignore bridge inspections:

"We're confident these bridges are safe," says Charles Carrier, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation in New York where 35 bridges made the list [of bridges marked "structurally deficient" since 1982].  "If we can't keep them safe, we close them."

How does Mr. Carrier know these bridges are safe?  Did someone else inspect them?  Or is he just making government spin?  He probably figures that since the bridges didn't fall down today, they probably won't fall down tomorrow just as I do when I drive across one.  As long as they don't fall before people forget he said they were safe.  So he's covered.

Bridges rarely fall because bridges are built by private companies.  They don't want their names linked to bridge collapse, so they over-build them.  Unfortunately, government employees maintain bridges and they don't always do it right.  A Connecticut highway bridge collapsed in 1983 due to corrosion caused by inadequate drainage.  The drains had been deliberately blocked during highway repairs 10 years before.  Even with the drains blocked, it took ten years for the bridge to rust out.

The confusion and cover-ups after the Big Dig tunnel ceiling fell in Boston teach that governments aren't any better at managing construction projects than at following maintenance procedures.  Some would argue that Boston is a special case; Bostonians wanted to steal as much money as possible using skills honed stealing from the Callahan Tunnel, the Boston Common Parking Garage, the Cambridge Court House, and other local construction projects.  But the fact remains that the ceiling fell because someone used the wrong epoxy in spite of being warned about similar problems on other projects.

As one would expect, the bureaucracy saw the Connecticut bridge collapse as an opportunity to ask for more money.  They pointed out that Connecticut had 12 inspectors for 3,425 bridges, but what good are inspections if no one pays attention?  What do inspections mean if bridges which are "structurally deficient" stay up since 1982?

Are our bridges safe?  Nobody knows, but we drive on them anyway.