A new Retro Report, a short documentary series presented by the New York Times, confirms that little action has been taken to improve the nation’s infrastructure since the I-35W Bridge collapsed seven years ago in Minneapolis. The recently released report trains a harsh spotlight on just how little has changed since the August day when 13 people died and almost 150 more were injured — one whose glare Barry LePatner says is well deserved.
“To me, the big takeaway from this Retro Report is that the way our nation funds, maintains, and classifies its infrastructure is wholly inadequate,” says LePatner, who is featured in the documentary along with other infrastructure experts as well as victims of the I-35W disaster. “Our government is failing to provide the most basic protections we expect from them. It’s outrageous that this happens — and that more people aren’t jumping up and down about it.”
LePatner, recently dubbed the “infrastructure Jeremiah” by the New York Times, is certainly doing his share of jumping. Not only did he create www.SaveOurBridges.com and write Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward, he spends his time warning anyone who will listen that 8,000 more bridges out there are in as poor a state as the I-35W was before it collapsed.
“Following the I-35W collapse and to this day, you’ll find government officials who swear that structurally deficient bridges are ‘safe,’” he notes. “America needs to hear the truth — really hear it — and I applaud the Retro Report for helping tell it.”
Here are what LePatner says are some of the most important insights highlighted in the Retro Report:
Lack of funding was a huge problem — and still is. Prior to its collapse, Minnesota state officials designated the I-35W Bridge a “budget buster.” The Minnesota DOT was prioritizing which bridges to address, but lack of money hindered their efforts. Today, Minnesota has beefed up its efforts to repair its bridges, and nationwide federal stimulus has helped, yet the state still has failed to remediate many bridges that are just like the failed I-35W.
America drives across thousands of very dangerous bridges. The Retro Report draws much-needed attention to the fact that the nearly 8,000 bridges that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical — as the I-35W was — are quite dangerous and could certainly collapse if they aren’t given proper attention. These bridges are just as vulnerable to collapse as the I-35W and the recently collapsed I-5 in Washington. (To find out where these bridges are located, visit www.SaveOurBridges.com.)
There is no failsafe for the nation’s bridges. As LePatner notes in the Retro Report, if a slight crack is found in the engine of a plane, then the FAA grounds all other planes of that type. But there is no such fail safe for bridges.
Bridge maintenance should trump new projects. In the Retro Report, Tom Johnson, author of the report on the bridge collapse for the Minnesota Legislature, noted the tendency for policymakers to fund new projects rather than maintenance. He said, “There’s tension between spending money for new roads or new interchanges, or putting money into the repair of a bridge. That bridge was standing yesterday. It’s standing today. Why won’t it be standing tomorrow? The lesson is that you’ve got to maintain bridges.”
Recently, some promising news came from President Obama. He proposed $302 billion for infrastructure projects in his recent budget.
“That’s certainly a step in the right direction,” says LePatner. “But I must stress the need for expediency. Many bridges are quite vulnerable and only becoming more so. Another bridge will fall, sooner rather than later. After all, gravity always wins.”