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How safe are the bridges you use?

Years after a deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis, nearly 1 in 9 US bridges remains €œstructurally deficient

Watch parts one and two of Adam May’s report

On Aug. 1, 2007, Lindsay Walz was stuck in traffic, frustrated and anxious to get home after a long day and missing her exit. As she neared the middle of the Interstate 35 bridge in downtown Minneapolis, she heard a clank.

Walz said she knew it was the sound of metal breaking. After Walz realized what was happening, the fall became a blur.

“My car went in and the water came up just as quickly as the car went in,” Walz said. “By the time the car stopped moving, I was drowning. I didn’t have a chance to grasp another breath of air.”

Walz’s Volkswagen Passat nose-dived more than 100 feet – the height of a 10-story building – into the Mississippi River.

“I ended up getting into the backseat and pushed and pushed and pushed, and then my body started to instinctually gasp for air,” Walz said. “Each time that happened I kind of started to shift my focus from fighting to live to accepting that that was where I was going to die.”

To Walz’s surprise, she lived. She started to float, slowly, reaching the surface of the water. But that’s when she noticed the scale of the destruction.

“A construction worker saw me and fished me out of the water with a broom that had fallen with the bridge,” Walz said. “I sat for about 45 minutes. I remember flames, I remember tangled beams, and I remember the Taystee [bakery] truck on fire. I remember the people on the island with me, the rubble…”

The 911 calls from that day describe the catastrophic scene.

“The whole bridge over the river fell down,” said one caller. “There’s cars all over the place.”

“Where sir?” asked the dispatcher.

“35W over the Mississippi,” the caller said. “There’s hundreds of cars in the river. Bring everything you got, and I’m not kidding.”

A formal investigation of the Interstate 35W Mississippi River bridge collapse took more than a year to complete. What was discovered was that the  bridge was listed as “structurally deficient” in 2005. At the time of the collapse, it was categorized the same way. Engineers acknowledged the bridge – opened in 1967 – was in need of critical maintenance, but still considered it “safe enough” to remain open.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the cause of the tragedy was a simple design flaw in the bridge’s gusset plates – the metal squares that connect one steel beam to another were not technically safe enough. The plates failed under the weight of bridge modifications, traffic and a concentration of construction equipment and materials on the bridge.

The scope of the problem

Today nearly 1 in 9 U.S. bridges is still “structurally deficient,” said Casey Dinges, a senior managing director for the American Society of Civil Engineers. In 2013, ASCE gave the U.S. a D-plus in its infrastructure report card (up from a D grade in 2009), while the nation’s bridges were graded a C-plus (up from a C grade).

“We have about 60,000 structurally deficient bridges,” Dinges said. “Those are bridges with physical problems that need greater maintenance, rehabilitation [and] replacement.”

A view of the devastation in Minneapolis three days after the I-35 bridge collapse.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

Dinges said the reason so many deficient bridges remain could be that we think they’re going to last forever.

“The reality is there’s a federal Highway Trust Fund that supports bridges, roadways in this country and transit systems, and that trust fund is going to go bankrupt in August of this year,” Dinges said. “Congress has a major challenge right now: to fix the trust fund before the end of the summer.”

With the deadline approaching, President Barack Obama is calling on lawmakers to support a plan of more than $300 billion to help repair the country’s bridges and roads, in addition to the $35 billion that the federal Highway Trust Fund allocates across all 50 states annually.

“It’s time for folks to stop running around saying what’s wrong with America,” Obama said of the initiative in May. “Roll up your sleeves and let’s get to work and help America rebuild. That is what we should be doing.”

We have about 60,000 structurally deficient bridges. Those are bridges with physical problems that need greater maintenance, rehabilitation [and] replacement.

Casey Dinges

American Society of Civil Engineers

The state with the worst record for bridge safety is Pennsylvania, with one in four bridgesconsidered “structurally deficient.” One of the state’s most recognizable bridges is Pittsburgh’s iconic Birmingham Bridge, which is also one of the many U.S. bridges that continue to show serious signs of age and rust. Bridge users had a scare back in 2008 when one of the rocker beams that support the bridge slipped, causing portions of the bridge to be closed for nearly a year.

“If there had been federal funds available, perhaps we could have delivered the project sooner,” said Dan Cessna, a district executive with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “If we didn’t have new state funding we wouldn’t be standing here talking about the fact that we’re getting ready to fix this bridge.”

To avoid a similar fate as Minneapolis – and with federal funding in jeopardy – the state of Pennsylvania passed Act 89 last fall, which set aside $40 million to overhaul the Birmingham Bridge.

“If you took this bridge out of service, 25 percent of capacity to cross the river would be lost,” Cessna said. “That would be a significant impact on commuters and businesses in the Pittsburgh region.”

‘Things will fall down’

In Minneapolis, a memorial has been erected honoring the victims of the bridge collapse. Thirteen columns overlook the new I-35 bridge to remember the lives that were lost in 2007. Walz’s name is etched into the memorial, along with 145 others who also survived the collapse.

But for Waltz, she has created her own memorabilia place. It’s the back brace that she wore for months after the accident. She credits art with helping her cope with the trauma of that day.

“I really just wanted to capture what I remembered,” Walz said. “It was a very cathartic process for me just to really put that memory in real visible form for myself.”

Walz said she still deals with post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt. She doesn’t know exactly how she survived, and she doesn’t trust the infrastructure system any longer. But she said the biggest loss of all was to her faith.

“My worldview now just comes with the assumption that things will fall down,” Walz said. “I can see all of the things that are wrong with our infrastructure, our buildings and all the different ways that we don’t care for stuff like that. I don’t trust that things will be safe.”

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