On August 1, 2007, the I-35 W span over the Mississippi River collapsed, killing 13 people, injuring 145, and severing a vital lifeline for many towns. Only 382 days later, the bridge had been replaced and was open to traffic once again. Six years after this tragedy, the question remains whether we have done enough to repair our crumbling infrastructure. Success stories like the rapid reconstruction of the I-35 bridge are widely touted, but isolated incidents are needed less than general trends toward improvement.
In an analysis of the nation’s roads and bridges, 1 out of 9 is deemed “structurally deficient”, while in five individual states, more than 20 percent of bridges are rated as such. Since 2000, 22,711 bridges are no longer considered structurally deficient. While this is an improvement, there are concerns that fiscal realities may derail progress. Currently, the Highway Trust Fund is projected to become insolvent in September of next year. The HTF is the primary means by which many states fund infrastructure repair and replacement projects. The I-35 replacement was constructed so quickly in large part due to near-continuous work for 11 months. Without adequate funding for construction projects, the time for completion will lengthen, driving up costs and the impacts on drivers.
Bridges are indispensable parts of our infrastructure system. Without safe, reliable, and efficient transportation, we will see the toll taken on the prices of goods and costs to ourselves and others. The average age of the 600,000 bridges in this nation is 42 years, with an estimated $76 billion in needs to address the problems. ASCE’s Failure to Act report on the costs of poor infrastructure shows that by 2020, deficient bridges and pavement will cost Americans 58 billion. If left untended, those costs will jump to $651 billion by 2040.
So as we approach the 6th anniversary of the terrible happenings on the I-35 W bridge, foremost in our mind should be the state of our infrastructure and if we are really doing enough to maintain our bridges. Individual instances of rapid repair and replacement are necessary, but insufficient. We must continue to fund the Highway Trust Fund and provide governments at all levels the tools they need to keep our infrastructure standing.