Armchair Quarterbacking the I-35W Bridge Collapse

The armchair failure analysis that’s happening in the wake of the I-35W bridge collapse kind of makes me laugh.

  • We’ve had good stretch of 90+ heat in the Twin Cities, therefore the bridge couldn’t handle the expansion and collapsed. Please. In July 2006 we had more days above 90 than we did this year, never mind the stretches that were much hotter. I would expect any bridge would be designed to handle expansion in temperatures well above 90.
  • With the construction on the bridge and the lanes narrowed from eight in each direction to four the imbalance caused the failure. What?!
  • With bumper to bumper traffic on the bridge it had to carry the weight of traffic at a standstill as opposed to traffic at full speed. Weight is weight, no matter the speed. (poorly paraphrased from several different online forums)

I’ll be the first one to tell you I’m no physicist and can’t explain what happened or how it happened but some of these theories are so bizarre, as if the bridge had certain tolerances that we just happened to push too far on August 1. I suppose in a sense that’s what happened, but it’s most likely in conjunction with a major failure. The way people are talking it’s as if any bridge could fall over if we get too many days over 90 degrees or if too many fat people walk across a bridge at the same time. You don’t blame the heat or the fat people, you blame the structural failure.

For all the talk of “structural deficiencies” and the what not, this is most likely a bridge that had some issues but they didn’t appear to be catastrophic. Turns out we were wrong and it was catastrophic. But I don’t think there’s going to be any smoking gun of Joe Blow didn’t tighten a bolt or overlooked this massive hole in the steel truss. And while improving infrastructure is important, it’s not like this bridge would have been first in line for replacement if we had millions or even billions to spend on infrastructure. They talked about replacing it by 2020. We had systems in place and those systems were followed. Obviously those systems will now be closely inspected and hopefully some improvements made if possible

But bottom line: I think this was a simple accident. I doubt many changes in procedure or funding would have changed that. There are no conspiracies here or scapegoats we can easily blame.

Of course we’ll know for sure in about a year when the report comes out and we can all stop doing armchair failure analysis.

5 thoughts on “Armchair Quarterbacking the I-35W Bridge Collapse”

  1. Yeah, I can see how there will be anger and I can understand it, but it still seems silly to me. Unless there’s some smoking gun of ‘we could have prevented this in 2004 with $X for infrastructure and an assurance that this bridge would have been at the top of the list–without that then there’s no way to know that this bridge would have been fixed and this could have been avoided.

    I could be completely wrong here–I’m armchair quarterbacking as much as the next guy (ironic, huh?)–but I think this was pretty unavoidable. Much like 9/11–if terrorists want to get on a plane and do some damage, it’s not that hard.

    Same deal here. If a major structural failure happened, I’m guessing it would have happened no matter what. Sure, we could have spent tons on infrastructure, but there’s no guarantee that X years ago everyone would have picked this bridge to fix first.

    Certainly let’s learn from this and invest in infrastructure. Let’s fix the bridges that we can. But even going forward, you don’t know which bridge of the thousands out there will collapse in the future. We can make an educated guess–and that’s what it sounds like they did on this bridge. And they guessed wrong. It was an accident. Accidents happen. That’s what I’m saying. You’ll never find a satisfactory way to explain it or a surefire way to prevent it. We can and should try, but no one can say with absolute certainty this will never happen again.

  2. I heard on talk radio yesterday that the bridge was declared “structurally deficient” within the past two years. This Forbes article claims that about 12% of all bridges in the nation have this status.

    This is some info on “structurally deficient” from the Forbes article linked above: A bridge is typically judged structurally deficient if heavy trucks are banned or there are other weight restrictions, if it needs immediate work to stay open or if it is closed. In any case, such a bridge is considered in need of substantial maintenance, rehabilitation or even replacement.

    Does it not disturb you that people (and even up to 8 lanes of traffic) are allowed to still drive over a bridge with this status? I think THAT needs to be relooked at. At the very least, perhaps people should be told which bridges are tagged with this status so that they can either choose not to use the bridge or potentially pull together efforts in the community to repair the bridge.

  3. Haven’t read the article you link to, Steph, (busy working and trying not to be too distracted), but the reports I’ve heard and read make “structurally deficient” out to be much less serious. In this case it seemed that the bridge probably wouldn’t last the full 80 years it was designed for, but there were no restrictions or immediate danger noted. They opted for increased inspection.

    There weren’t any restrictions on 35W for heavy trucks–in fact, trucks had to take 35W because they were restricted on 35E.

    Like I said, that’s the reports I’ve heard. I’d have to dig around to find actual links.

    And like I said before, all my thoughts are assuming there is no “smoking gun”. If something is uncovered where something should have been done and wasn’t or it was buried, that’s something else entirely. But the fact that, as you noted, 12% of bridges in the nation have this status, it would cost billions and take years to fix them all. There’s no guarantee this tragedy would have been diverted.

  4. I’ll throw this in as well: The Star Trib has a list of Minnesota’s Worst Bridges, all of them with worse ratings than the 35W bridge. Assuming we did decide years ago to spend more on infrastructure, it’s likely some of these bridge would have had priority over the 35W bridge.

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