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Ten Years Later

By Kerry O’Hare, Vice President and Director of Policy

August 14, 2017

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since the horrific collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring 145 people on August 1, 2007. In addition to the terrible loss of life and the injuries sustained, a major commuting route for over 140,00 daily vehicles was lost for nearly fourteen months.

While the bridge had been listed as structurally deficient, the National Transportation Safety Board ultimately determined that the cause of the collapse was a design flaw. A classification of structurally deficient does not necessarily mean that a bridge is dangerous; rather, it is a designation that it is aging and in need of repair. In fact, repairs to the bridge were underway when it collapsed. But that is of little solace to the millions of Americans who cross one of the over 55,000 structurally deficient bridges every day. Structurally deficient bridges can be found in every state – and even in Washington, DC. On a positive note, while over 55,000 structurally deficient bridges are clearly too many, the number is down from the nearly 74,000 such bridges in 2007. 

The bridge collapse momentarily heightened the public’s and policymakers’ attention to the deteriorating state of our nation’s infrastructure. Then U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters called on states to immediately inspect any steel deck truss bridges similar to the I-35W bridge, and Congress approved $250 million for the bridge’s reconstruction. But after a handful of Congressional hearings and legislative proposals to increase funding for roads and bridges – including a call to raise the gas tax five cents by then House Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar - not much action occurred, and it was soon back to business as usual.

But when it came to building a replacement bridge, the story grew more encouraging. The new bridge was built on an expedited schedule using the (at the time) innovative design-build project delivery method. An unqualified success story, the new bridge opened to traffic on September 18, 2008. The project was completed three months ahead of schedule and was awarded the “Best Overall Design-Build Project Award” for 2009 from the Design-Build Institute of America.

Innovative project delivery methods such as design-build became more prevalent and policymakers looked for other ways to hasten the time it takes to build important transportation projects. That conversation continues today as the Trump Administration drafts its $1 trillion infrastructure plan with an emphasis on speeding up the project delivery process and incentives to attract greater private investment. We at Building America’s Future support efforts to build needed projects faster and to better leverage private investment. But a bold long-term infrastructure plan must also include robust and reliable federal funding. If America is to remain economically competitive and provide the quality of life that Americans expect and deserve, all levels of government and the private sector must work together. 

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was correct when she stated – in the aftermath of the Minnesota bridge collapse – that “a bridge in America shouldn’t just fall down.” It’s time to get serious, put partisan differences aside, and work together on a visionary long-term infrastructure plan. The upcoming debate on tax reform could provide the ideal opportunity to finally achieve this goal.