'Too Big to Fall:' the hazardous health of America's roads and bridges
In his recent book "Too Big to Fall," author and construction attorney Barry LePatner warns that the preservation and maintenance of the nation's transportation infrastructure is being dangerously neglected.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
"Too Big to Fall: America's Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward"
by Barry LePatner
Foster Publishing, 234 pp., $27.95
After the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed four years ago, killing 13 people, investigators blamed the disaster on undersized steel "gusset plates" that connected its giant beams.
The episode infuriates author Barry LePatner, who accuses the National Transportation Safety Board of avoiding the larger picture: Minnesota officials, citing tight budgets, procrastinated by delaying a strengthening project until 2020, despite warnings by independent engineers I-35W could fail.
LePatner, a New York construction attorney, argues the entire nation is in similar denial.
Elected officials crave the fame of cutting the ribbon on a new highway, rather than maintaining an old bridge, he argues. Even here in enlightened Washington state, only about $1.1 billion of the $9 billion 2011-12 transportation budget goes directly to highway preservation or maintenance, using mainly federal funds. Redecking work for parts of Interstate 5 and Interstate 90 remains unfunded as gas-tax income drops, while what's left is leveraged to deliver projects such as Seattle's Highway 99 and the north Spokane freeway.
Some politicians this year have awakened to the maintenance crisis, making "Too Big to Fall"a timely book. The American Society of Civil Engineers famously rates U.S. roads a D-minus and bridges a C. Nationally, about $96 billion is needed to fix existing roads and transit, LePatner says.
But President Obama and Congress can't unite on a funding plan. While the crumbling continues, LePatner urges states to install strain gauges, weight scales, cameras and corrosion sensors to gather bridge data around the clock, instead of trusting sporadic visual inspections.
He challenges all 50 states to hold disaster drills.
"By going through the precise steps that simulate a bridge collapse involving the death of dozens of people in cars that fall a hundred feet or more, along with injuries to hundreds of other people, as well as being forced to confront the massive cost of restoring traumatized communities," officials would be forced to recognize the problem, he hopes.
Washington recently ranked fifth-best in a T4 America study, with only 5 percent of bridges structurally deficient. Pennsylvania fared worst at 27 percent.
Washington state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond suggests a quota for maintenance in the next round of Washington state transportation taxes — even if fewer new lanes are built. Until then, this book offers professional and armchair engineers a wealth of history to place future road failures in perspective.
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