MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. It was one year ago today during the busy afternoon rush hour that the interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. Within 13 seconds, the entire structure was reduced to twisted steel and concrete, smashed across the Mississippi River and its banks. 13 people died, more than 140 were injured. Afterwards, there were many calls for bridge inspections and for increased funding for repairs. One year later, NPR's David Schaper reports on how much of that is getting done.
DAVID SCHAPER: The 35W bridge had been rated structurally deficient since 1990. And though the main cause of the bridge's failure is likely undersized gusset plates and its outdated design, the National Transportation Safety Board also cites significant corrosion on gusset plates as a possible contributing factor. Minnesota and every other state immediately sent out inspectors to scrutinize other bridges of similar design. Some where closed, others repaired, and there was a new sense of urgency.
But highway officials around the country say if Minnesota's bridge collapse was an alarm bell, someone must've hit the snooze button because tens of thousands of bridges nationwide remain in shabby shape. Pete Rahn is Missouri's transportation director and president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. At a news conference in Philadelphia this week, he unveiled the report detailing the state of bridges.
Mr. PETE RAHN (Director, Missouri Department of Transportation): One in four of the nation's more than 590,000 bridges is rated as either in need of repair or inadequate to handle today's traffic.
SCHAPER: Rahn says the nation's bridges are, on average, 43 years old. Most are designed to last 50 years, bringing many close to retirement age. The cost to fix or replace the crumbling bridges: a whopping $140 billion. That's about the same amount Washington recently sent out to taxpayers in economic stimulus checks. But federal funding for bridges is hard to come by because the federal highway trust fund, which pays for highway and bridge repairs, is running out of money, in part because of high gas prizes. With Americans driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars, they're not paying as much in gas taxes, which go into the federal highway trust funds. Congress may shore up the trust fund and is looking for ways to improve bridge inspections, like the ones they're doing in Wisconsin.
Mr. JOEL ALSUM (Inspector, Wisconsin Department of Transportation): This bridge is made out of (unintelligible) weathering steel.
SCHAPER: I'm hanging underneath the Interstate 43 bridge in Green Bay, Wisconsin about 120 feet up off the ground and some wetlands area below. And I'm with Joel Alsum, who is a bridge inspector for the State of Wisconsin, taking a detailed look at some pins that are part of the structure that holds this bridge together.
Mr. ALSUM: Today, we are doing phased-array ultrasound on some bridge pins in a bridge hanging at a joint.
SCHAPER: The steel pins Alsum inspects are huge, five to six inches in diameter, about 10 inches long, and they fasten together steel plates that hold the bridge's steel girders together at its joints. Alsum starts his inspection by first rubbing a gel on the face of the pin like a doctor would on a pregnant woman's belly then he moves the handheld device over it, so the pulsating sound waves create an ultrasound image of the inside of the solid steel pin on a portable screen.
Mr. ALSUM: Typically, we're looking for cracks, and we're also looking for large areas of corrosion.
SCHAPER: These are things that you could tell by the naked eye, correct?
Mr. ALSUM: That's correct. Visual inspection will not be able to identify these areas.
SCHAPER: This relatively new high-tech tool allows inspectors like Joel Alsum to identify signs of wear and fatigue much earlier than before, so they can be watched over time or repaired or replaced. But as states improve how they find problems on bridges, Michael Pagano says very few spend enough money on maintenance to prevent problems. Pagano is a University of Illinois, Chicago professor who recently graded the states on infrastructure management for Governing Magazine. Standing on a bridge over the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago, he says politicians often budget only for what a bridge like this will cost to build, but not what it costs to keep up.
Professor MICHAEL PAGANO (Interim Dean; Urban Planning and Public Affairs, University of Illinois): What we have today is we have crumbling and neglected infrastructure - words that seem to go together all the time, crumbling and infrastructure - and the reason is that we've never planned for how we should adequately pay for the use of that facility over the design life, or what the civil engineers would call the design life of an asset.
SCHAPER: An asset that is supposed to carry motorists safely over rivers, creeks and other highways. But Pagano and others say that the failure of one in Minneapolis a year ago today has yet to lead to significant changes in how we fund, repair and maintain bridges. David Schaper, NPR News.