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America's Critical Infrastructure Is Crumbling

Since 1988, there have been over 500 bridge failures in the U.S. Of the 600,000 bridges on the federal register 150,000 are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

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Most of us drive across at least one bridge on our way to work every day and we don’t even think twice about. Well, here’s something to think about: one in four bridges is dangerously deteriorated and may be at risk for collapse, according to recent reports.

“For several decades our nation and our leaders have failed to address continuously deteriorating infrastructure,” says construction expert Barry LePatner. “There is a lack of understanding that the nations’ infrastructure needs massive amounts of annual upkeep.” How massive? The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the costs of upgrades, expansions, and repairs to the U.S. bridge system at $9.4 billion a year for 20 years.

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Politics as Usual

LePatner points the finger at politicians who he says deserve a large part of the blame. “Political leaders are given funds to allocate towards deteriorating infrastructure, and they choose to use that money elsewhere on projects with photo opportunities. Bridge repair isn’t sexy. They figure the bridge was standing when they took office, it’ll be standing when they leave. And in the meantime, they’ll give their constituents that new park they’ve been wanting. That’s how they end up with blood on their hands. They’ve unintentionally created a perfect storm.”

Since 1988, there have been over 500 bridge failures in the U.S. Of the 600,000 bridges on the federal register 150,000 are deemed structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. “They have critical deficiencies,” LePatner says. “These structures are typically 50 to 100 years old. They have largely reached their logical lifespan and, with out tending to that quickly, we are going to continue to see an increasingly rapid deterioration and more bridge failures like we saw in Minneapolis.”

 

The Minnesota Story

The November, 2007 collapse of the 1-35W bridge in Minneapolis MN, is the most high-profile bridge disaster in recent memory. The final report from the National Transportation Safety Board, issued in November, 2008, attributes the collapse to steel gusset plates that were too thin and modifications to the original design that added weight to the bridge. LePatner says the NTSB report tells only part of the story.

“The NTSB is severely neglecting its duty to protect Americans,” by ignoring the “inefficiency and irresponsibility among government agencies responsible for the bridge,” he says. The I-35W bridge was first rated “structurally deficient” in 1990, and at no time between 1990 and its collapse in 2007 was the bridge’s condition ever raised above a “poor” rating.

 

Bridges and BCP

There are 12,000 bridges in the U.S. with designs similar to the I-35W bridge. How can you ensure that you, your employees, and your supply chain aren’t in jeopardy? It’s not easy, and that’s part of the problem, LePatner says. There is no national list of bridges and their conditions. The search must be undertaken at the state level, and many state departments of transportation have web sites listing bridge status.

Le Patner suggests a swift and serious risk analysis of bridges specific to your organization. And he encourages business continuity professionals to put public-private partnerships to work to address the issue by “identify politicians who have jurisdiction in those areas and put pressure on them to make sure they are fighting for money to get those bridges improved.”

Author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry, LePatner calls the current risk “staggering. We need a solid transportation infrastructure for our lifeline, our homeland security, and for global competitiveness. We just can’t have these things collapsing.”