It is unknown which is worse this past week: torrential rains and unseasonably cold weather in Germany and parts of Europe as well as the US, or the bickering that has blossomed in light of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge disaster, which has reached new levels this weekend. Already many massive media giants have decided to go with the Culture of Fear trend and have started bashing bridge types and incremental repairs to the aging structures in favor of more giantic concrete structures that can handle traffic for 100 years. This was clearly demonstrated in an Associated Press blog posted in the US Bridges website, which you can see here.
The response has been overwhelming. Many pontists and engineers have balked at the article, claiming that bridges can be maintained and rehabilitated without having to waste millions of taxpayers’ dollars on a concrete slab bridge, whose lifespan is half of that of other bridge types, such as trusses, cantilever trusses, suspension, and even arches. Some have responded by saying that they should talk to the real bridge experts than the politicians who think they know about the design specifics and how a bridge should be built, but in all reality, they do not even have a degree in civil engineering to prove it.
From a columnists’ point of view, the problem lies clearly on the deregulation of the transportation industry, where since the Reagan years (and the mentality of deregulation), we have seen an enormous increase in the number of vehicles that are overweight, oversized, or both, combined with drivers who do not know the limits of driving with this excessiveness. In the last 25 years, many roads, bridges and tunnels have taken a severe beating because of this high volume of traffic that is on the highways.
The collapse of the bridge in Washington should serve as a wake-up call to all politicians to pass tougher federal measures to put limits on the amount of load a truck is required to carry and enforce strict fines and other penalties for drivers violating these regulations. Furthermore, trucking companies should be required to invest in GPS technology suitable for trucks only to ensure that truck drivers choose the routes and crossings most appropriate to them. And finally, truckers should take extra training, putting them in practical situations to have them prepare for the unexpected. While this may take more money than what is being invested, in the long term, it will pay more dividends than going on a Salem Bridge Witch Trial, tearing down bridges that are still in good condition, just because the media says that thousands of bridges are at risk of “a freak accident.”
One can point fingers at stupidity or bridge design flaws as the reason for bridges like Skagit to fail, and the Washington transportation officials will scramble to put a pair of Bailey Trusses in place of the fallen truss span while planning a bridge with no vertical clearance issues. Yet in all reality, we should have learned our lesson from another bridge disaster, namely the Minneapolis Bridge disaster of 2007, which is in order to have an efficient infrastructure that carries us from point A to point B, we need to give a little for the safety of other travellers using it as well. This applies to roads, bridges, tunnels, and the drivers who use them. Henceforth, less is more. Less of a load means a more prolonged life span for a bridge. This is something that we (and especially truck drivers) should consider in the future.