Third Party & Independents Archives

A Metallurgist’s Insights Into the Minneapolis Bridge Disaster

The incredible collapse of the Minneapolis bridge will send a message to the nation that has been repeatedly sent for decades, but that our political system has refused to effectively respond to. America’s physical, engineered infrastructure has been in desperate need for massive spending to repair and replace, but the multi-trillion-dollar cost has been rejected by local, state and federal politicians.

We have had bipartisan government neglect.

First, understand that I have a professional background in this area. My career started as a metallurgist, than I obtained a Ph.D. in Materials Engineering and became a full professor of metallurgical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where I taught about mechanical metallurgy and failure analysis, and in my consulting practice regularly worked on explaining actual failures of products and systems.

Many academic and professional groups have for many years produced countless reports on mounting unpaid public costs for updating our crucial physical infrastructure, including bridges, but going way beyond those to, for example, roads, water and sewer systems, tunnels and much more. Make no mistake: The deeply researched and totally supported case for a massive national infrastructure spending program could not have been clearer. For example, in an excellent essay It's Time to Rebuild America, Felix G. Rohatyn and Warren Rudman wrote about the national crisis.

But spending on infrastructure is not sexy and politicians at ALL levels of government have found countless excuses for not facing the totality of the problem. Instead, public spending is dribbled out, dealing with the most urgent problems or, worse yet, the ones that are the most visible to the public. But unaddressed are massive numbers of problems, such as the Minneapolis bridge and thousands more bridges, that our bureaucratic system has learned to game, postpone, rationalize and, therefore, put the public safety at considerable risk.

As a metallurgist I can pretty much assure you that if there is a technically honest and complete investigation, the ultimate explanation of the Minneapolis bridge failure will be related to fatigue cracking in the metal structure. Already, news reports have revealed some prior observation of a fatigue problem with the bridge and that the bridge had a relatively low rating of four out of a possible nine, showing that it was structurally deficient. The game played by virtually all government agencies is to find excuses for delaying the most costly repair or replacement of bridges and other parts of our physical infrastructure. As just another example, in most older urban areas there are constant repairs of busted underground water pipes. What is really needed, but avoided, is a total replacement of very old underground pipe systems – in many places 100 or more years old!

Government inspection programs have been terribly compromised over many years. The incredible political pressures to minimize spending on infrastructure have filtered down to the people, procedures and technologies used to examine bridges and other things. When it comes to bridges it is also important to admit that many aspects of our automobile addiction have raised risks, including enormously greater numbers of vehicles creating heavy traffic during much of the day in urban regions. Add to this the massive increase in vehicle weight resulting from the incredible increase in monster SUVs, as well as huge increases in large truck traffic.

The Minneapolis bridge collapse happened during evening rush hour because that was a period of maximum stress, and that would be the trigger for expanding existing fatigue cracks. Once fatigue cracks get to critical sizes they grow and propagate very rapidly, producing powerful loads and stresses on remaining steel components and creating what appears to be a virtually instantaneous bridge collapse.

The remaining public policy question is clear: Will the nation spend what is necessary? Seven other major bridge collapses in the last 40 years have not done the trick. Inadequate bridge inspection has been a frequent documented problem, as well as some design defects. Many people have already died from bridge failures. But still the nation’s elected officials have not bitten the bullet and agreed to spend trillions of dollars over several decades to bring America’s physical infrastructure up to the most modern standards.

Think about all this the next time you go over a bridge.

Posted by Joel S. Hirschhorn at August 2, 2007 12:08 PM
Comment #228172

Here is an excellent site that has been recording and calling for infrastructure investment and warning of failures since at least 2001.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 2, 2007 12:39 PM
Comment #228190

7 is 40 years, is that excessive or quite impressive? How many plane crashes have we had during that time, yet we all know that it is still the safest way to travel.

I live in Indiana and we have 5700 bridges. All of them are in ‘good’ condition and we have no bridges made the way that the one that collapsed was built.

I’m not against ensuring our infrastructure is safe, but we can’t achieve 100% safety or we wouldn’t allow cars on the roads to begin with. What number is too much in proportion to the money we spend? Where is that sweet spot?

I don’t want to see this event be used as an impetus for more pork laden spending projects that will most likely not make the infrastructure any better than it is now…

Posted by: Rhinehold at August 2, 2007 5:21 PM
Comment #228194

Rhinehold, I don’t want to see unnecessary pork spending either, or diversions of tax dollars to family friends and aides in the case of Sen. Ted Stevens in AK. now under investigation by the FBI.

On the other hand, the volume of research and documentation and warnings about our transportation infrastructure have been growing for at least 10 years now. At some point, it must become a priority.

Look, world capital is flowing to China, India, Malyasia, and other countries where it wasn’t flowing just 10 years ago. What changed? One of the important factors was those government’s massive investment in their infrastructure to accommodate the current export expansion in their economies needed to tap their competitive advantage of lower human capital costs.

The U.S. is the largest importer of foreign goods and for both our export and import efficiencies, we had best make transportation infrastructure a much higher priority in our budget, or we will find at some time in the future, that our failure to invest in our infrastructure and the loss of efficiencies that will engender, will provide even more competitive advantage to other nations.

It has been said many times by some of the best minds in America that America’s greatest liability in global competition is its failure to plan and invest long term, which countries like China, Japan, and India have turned into an art form.

The Big 3 Auto manufacturers just lost a huge milestone this year. They no longer produce the majority of cars sold for American roads. They lost advantage by failing to plan for our consumer’s demand for alternative fueled vehicles, more efficient vehicles, and for the expansion of the smaller car market share.

But instead of reading the writing on the wall, Gov. Rendell, Gov. Perry, and other Republicans in the House and Senate, are now going to impede progress by fighting for privatization of our roads, as opposed to the kind of reprioritized investment which foreign governments committed to which is now reaping them benefits in foreign capital flowing in for their efficient export trade and giving them competitive advantage over the U.S. in the not too distant future.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 2, 2007 6:08 PM
Comment #228201


I agree, our infrastructure is one of those things that the federal government is DEFINATELY supposed to be providing for us. Perhaps if they weren’t so busy trying to do everything and focused on what they should be doing it would be easier to accomplish and easier for our oversight of their ability to do just that.

I don’t have a problem personally with privatizing some of the freeway systems, etc. But if they do NOT do their job it should be made evident. They should still be held responsible for their operation, if they aren’t able to keep the private companies performing they should not be representing us.

Posted by: Rhinehold at August 2, 2007 7:41 PM
Comment #228219


China? India? Our infrastructure needs attention, but let’s not pretend it is much better anyplace else. I have driven on roads all over the place. America’s are better than most. BTW - our freight rail system is the best in the world. In much of Europe, people travel on trains, but most goods travel by truck. This is very inefficient. Our infrastruture, bad as it is, is one of our competitive advantages, because it is worse most other places.

I am not disagreeing that infrastruture is a problem, but I think it is important to have it in the proper perspective. W/o perspective, we cannot properly set priorities. For example, if we have the option of expanding the road network along HWY 81 or expanding freight rail, the road will be more popular and visible; rail will be a better investment.

Infrastructure building is sometimes popular. Politicians like to open highways and bridges. Maintaining it is less fun for them, so they neglect it and they do not do much of anything that cannot be seen. That is why they are unenthusiastic about the nether regions of bridges.

Privatization of some infrastructure is a good idea. Even today, the toll roads are nicer. You can tell when you cross from the free road to the toll road, and not only by the fare.

Somebody has to pay for the roads. We should figure out the best way to make that the people using them most and create the most congestion. That is why the peak pricing is a good idea, but in order to have peak pricing, you have to have pricing. We cannot build enough roads to satisfy the demand as long as using highways has no significant variable cost.

BTW - This whole infrastruture problem is perpetual. I do not remember a time when I could not find articles re the infrastructure crisis.

Posted by: Jack at August 2, 2007 11:10 PM
Comment #228230

Jack said: “Our infrastructure needs attention, but let’s not pretend it is much better anyplace else.”

I said accurately they have invested large in their infrastructure and it is paying them dividends in foreign capital investments and exports today as a result. That is the only claim I made. If you want to pretend I said something else, go ahead, but, it will be your pretense, not mine.

Jack said: “BTW - our freight rail system is the best in the world.”

Your kidding, right? The tracks and right of ways are a century old, Jack and have not been adapted to our transportation centers for maximum efficiency. It is a 100 year old system for the most part, and utterly fails to even reach major new hubs of economic activity developed in the last 50 years. And our rail infrastructure is so minimal as to have created almost daily bottlenecks of trains sitting and waiting for others to pass. Lastly, as most Americans traveling America have witnessed, our trains run very, very, slow, due to scheduling bottlenecks and unsafe infrastructure and right aways for higher speed transport.

Your facts are just appalling deficient, Jack. Where is America’s bullet trains, monorails, magnetic rails? That technology and efficiency in the 100’s of billions is being developed overseas, Jack, not here.

We excel in oceanic ports and the Interstate Highway system which is very well maintained but, also showing age in design. Where is America’s investment in Truck ONLY lanes maintained by shipping company taxes for the very high maintenance costs caused by their big rigs? Nope, our transportation investments largely amount to an unplanned distribution of pork spending to companies in politician’s elected districts, like Sen. Stevens (R) Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

As I argued rightfully and correctly, America has no long term investment plans the likes of Japan, China, India, who are investing in their infrastructure to meet needs many decades out and whose plans are designed around future competitive advantage.

In America we aren’t even maintaining the archaic infrastructure that exists, let alone building new, highly efficient and far more cost effective infrastructure that will pay dividends in 2040 and 2060. It is the old refrain, Democrats start that kind of spending, and Republicans cut it in a never ending cycle of horrible inefficiency in meeting the future without a plan. I wrote an entire article on this, Unplanned America.

Your reply to me above appears to only fulfill the role of loyal opposition without regard to facts, reality, and regard for solving problems, and meeting the needs of the future. Your plan is to trust the competitive free enterprise system to take care of the future with their intense focus on next quarter’s earnings and annual shareholder’s meeting.

And that’s no plan for competitive advantage in 2040 and out for our infrastructure at all, Jack.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 3, 2007 1:24 AM
Comment #228261


From most news reports you appear to be 100% correct. Well, other than one Washington bureaucrat that prefers calling it an anomaly.

Something the MSM seems remiss in reporting is that Senator’s Dodd and Hagel introduced legislation to address just this type of problem only hours earlier:

Posted by: KansasDem at August 3, 2007 1:32 PM
Comment #228281

Some additional thoughts:

I would estimate that there is a 90+ percent probability that fatigue cracking will be found to be the main cause of the bridge failure. It is clear that inspections found evidence of fatigue problems. Historically, in the absence of some clear macro-incident, such as a barge hitting bridge supports, for a bridge that has been used for many decades to suddenly collapse the most probable cause is metal fatigue.

What should be the focus of government and public attention is the various inadequacies of bridge inspections. Were the very best metal analysis technologies used, rather than reliance on visual observations? Were the inspectors the very best educated and trained? Were inspections constrained by federal or state regulations and guidelines so that best available methods and technologies were not (justifiably) used? Here is the big point: The fact that this bridge fell down is proof positive that the entire inspection and maintenance program was a FAILURE! The central goal and responsibility of engineering practices is to protect the public and PREVENT deaths.

Can responsibility also be assigned to the design of the bridge? Yes, to some extent. The design was the opposite of “fail-safe.” If any key bridge structure component failed, then the entire bridge was doomed to fail. And perhaps it can be reasonably argued that at the time of the original design, that this feature was accepted practice. However, we must understand that if cost constraints had not been imposed, designers could probably have built in various redundancies so that only portions of the bridge would have failed under the most catastrophic scenarios.

Here is yet another big issue that I have not seen mentioned or discussed by anyone yet. I can absolutely guarantee that there were countless discussions over the years by engineers, bureaucrats and politicians that combined risk assessment and cost-benefit types of thinking. It comes down to this: To bite the bullet and conclude that to provide maximum protection of public safety the bridge should be replaced would inevitably face debates about the incredibly high costs and the enormous difficulties of obtaining the funding, and also how obtaining such funding would imperil other government projects.

So the decision moves in the direction of higher levels of inspection to postpone the inevitable high cost/low risk scenario. On the other hand, all people connected to these kinds of discussions know one big reality: If the crap hits the fan and there really is a catastrophic bridge failure, then the money WILL be readily available to replace it! This is the way the system works. Of course, to replace the bridge and deal with all the many horrific impacts of the bridge failure AFTER the fact will cost much, much more money than if a planned replacement strategy had been adopted!. But that is exactly what the Minneapolis story ultimately is all about. It is what virtually all of our national infrastructure thinking is about. The New Orleans disaster was totally preventable, as every technically sound and objective analysis showed.

As time goes on and our national physical infrastructure continues to degrade from many causes, including corrosion, fatigue and inevitable wear and tear, we will continue to see deaths, injuries and incredible economic harm. And, yes, global warming and all of its anticipated climatic changes will just increase the risks of catastrophic infrastructure failures. As just one example, sea level rise is known in some quarters to put in jeopardy virtually every major American city that sits on or close to a major water body. Ultimately, our biggest infrastructure investment will be for constructing massive, complicated dikes and walls, as the Dutch have done, to protect our major coastal cities.

Waiting for politicians to make physical infrastructure a priority is like waiting for Godot.

Posted by: Joel S. Hirschhorn at August 3, 2007 5:48 PM
Comment #228287

“What should be the focus of government and public attention is the various inadequacies of bridge inspections.”


Sounds like just the kind of thing that the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment could have determined, and it probably could have provided the most bang for the buck.

Posted by: KansasDem at August 3, 2007 8:42 PM
Comment #228298


All those high speed and confortable things you mention are PASSENGER trains. This is exactly what I said. They move people; we move stuff.

When passengers are waiting, as you mention, they are often waiting for the freight train to go by.

Re freight rail, you may want to read a little more.

I lived in Europe for 12 years. I enjoyed their passenger rail and heard the complaints re freight. Here is a study re. In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe moved roughly the same percentage of freight by rail; but, by 2000, the share of U.S. rail freight was 38% while in Europe only 8% of freight traveled by rail. In 1997, while U.S. trains moved 2,165 billion ton-kilometers of freight, the 15-nation European Union moved only 238 billion ton-kilometers of freight

Most Americans feel the way you do. The source of their misunderstanding goes exactly to the infrastucure problem. Americans (and Europeans) think rail in Europe is better because they ride on passenger trains but nobody much sees the freight. Out of sight, out of mind.

Posted by: Jackj at August 3, 2007 10:54 PM
Comment #228322

Jack said: “All those high speed and confortable things you mention are PASSENGER trains. This is exactly what I said. They move people; we move stuff.”

And why, to ask the obvious question, can’t that same technology be used to move stuff instead of people? Is cargo more afraid of speed than people?

In the U.S. we move freight from coastal areas to the interior or vice versa. This results in only 4 primary directions of travel for rail freight to reach other modes of transportation distribution hubs, AND NO INTERNATIONAL CHECK POINTS INVOLVED. In Europe, as you said, there are 15 countries with nearly every degree of the compass used for destination or shipping point, hence, trucks are used more intensively in Europe, with 15 times our INTERNATIONAL Checkpoints involved.

But, what is this comparison between Europe and the U.S.? What does that have to do with the price of tea in China? At issue was the investment in infrastructure in China, India, and Malaysia and the enormous competitive advantage they now enjoy as a result of such investments. If you want to compare apples to apples, you have to compare single entity nations with other single entity nations. Not the U.S. against the EU.

Posted by: David R. Remer at August 4, 2007 7:41 AM
Post a comment