Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Catch Me, I’m Falling

with 2 comments

New York Times

An opinion piece on the Minneapolis 35W bridge failure by Samuel I. Schwartz, who was the New York City Department of Transportation’s chief engineer from 1986 to 1990.

While there has been speculation about why this bridge failed, and the warnings about possible failure, this is the first article I have seen that actually identifies the root cause. I have refrained from comment until now, as I am not a Professional Engineer, but I have heard the members of that profession complain about this problem, and I am somewhat surprised that it has not been addressed (so far as I have seen) before now.

In the United States, local authorities can qualify for federal funding for bridge building or bridge replacement. But there is no federal funding to ensure that bridges are maintained.

“A 1989 study, which I commissioned for New York City’s transportation department, concluded that the city’s 840 bridges could be maintained in near pristine condition for $150 million annually. At the time, instead of conducting routine maintenance, we were spending $400 million a year to replace parts and even whole bridges. “

Federal funding looks like other people’s money. So states and cities would rather spend that than the dollars that have to go to their local taxpayers for. Mr Shwartz thinks there should be federal funding for bridge maintenance. I am not so sure. If the problem is due to federal funding, becoming more dependent on Washington may well make the problem worse.

We have also seen a continuous barrage of appeals to Ottawa for more federal funding of infrastructure funds – especially for transit and transportation. This is because Ottawa has been running budgetary surpluses for some years, and using it, mostly, to pay down the debt. And in general terms, reducing the amount of money needed for debt service now should leave more room for program spending in future. But some provinces, such as BC and Alberta have also been running surpluses. And in Alberta’s case, they have become debt free. Even so there has not been a significant increase in that province’s transit spending. Even some essential roads – such as those serving the oil patch that is producing this revenue – have been neglected.

The bridge failures – yes he describes rather a lot of them – and the attendant loss of life, would, you would think, attract attention. It is also the case that road maintenance is also neglected. And while the death and injury toll caused by poor road surfaces and pot holes comes in dribs and drabs, and the cost of damage to vehicles is probably much more than the dollars saved by not fixing problems quickly, this practice continues too, on both sides of the border.

As the saying goes, be careful of what you wish for, you might get it. I think it is much more important that transportation funds – from whatever source – are spent wisely, and with a view to optimizing life cycle cost. No new research is needed to establish how to do that. But an institutional mind set must be changed.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 13, 2007 at 4:47 am

2 Responses

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  1. Perhaps a major reason for lack of maintenance spending (which you imply above, but don’t say outright) is that maintenance is just not sexy. It will not get you any votes. So, politicians campaign on NEW bridges and NEW roads, rather than on maintaining existing infrastructure.

    I think it is the same reason why politicians prefer to build massive rail infrastructure, even when sometimes a few express buses would be cheaper, more efficient, and just as widely used.

    Andrew E

    August 13, 2007 at 5:43 pm

  2. No I didn’t say or imply anything of the sort. I cited Mr Schwartz, who says they neglect maintenance because Washington won’t pay for it but will buy them a nice new bridge later on after the one they have falls down for lack of maintenance. The extent to which politicians get involved at this level is not discussed in his article.

    Stephen Rees

    August 13, 2007 at 6:25 pm

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