Thursday, May 1, 2008

Pork and Bridges

Ed Morrissey points out that Pork did not bring down the St. Anthony Bridge.

Minnesotans spend $2.2 billion a year on transportation, more than three times what we spend on public safety (fire and police). It’s the second-largest portion of the discretionary budget in this state, and for good reason. Winters take their toll on roads and bridges, and both are constantly in inspection and repair statuses. The St. Anthony Bridge was no exception to that. Unfortunately, the design flaw didn’t become apparent until the bridge collapsed.
The particulars, perhaps, but in regard to the basic design flaw I beg to differ.
The National Bridge Inventory contains a report on this bridge from 2003. It reports the following items:
  • Deck Condition: Fair.
  • Superstructure Condition: Poor.
  • Substructure Condition: Satisfactory.
  • Scour: Foundations determined to be stable.
  • Bridge Railings: Meets currently acceptable standards.
  • Structural Evaluation: Meets minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as-is.
  • Water Adequacy Evaluation: Superior to present desirable criteria.
  • Bridge Sufficiency Rating: 50%
A University of Minnesota Civil Engineer in a report to MN-DOT recently noted that this bridge is considered to be a non-redundant structure. That is, if any one member fails, the entire bridge can collapse. A key factor is that there are only four pylons holding up the arch. Any damage to any one pylon would be catastrophic. The textbook example of a non-redundant bridge is the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River. It failed shortly before Christmas in 1967 resulting in 46 deaths. A single piece of hardware failed due to a tiny manufacturing defect. But that piece was non-redundant, and the entire bridge collapsed into the icy river. Today, bridge engineers design bridges so that any single piece of the bridge can fail without causing the entire bridge to collapse. It is tragic that the I-35W bridge was built a few years too early to benefit from that lesson.
So I might give a little more credence to the fact that a basic design flaw was identified 40 years prior. One might have thought that this would have pushed it toward the top of the list for replacement, but then again, I'm no bridge designer. (How many non-redundant bridges are still out there that also should be replaced -- hopefully before we use our highway funds and gas taxes for bike paths?)
As it happens, these are the same men who played the lead role in the $286 billion 2005 federal highway bill. That's the bill that diverted billions of dollars of gas tax money away from urgent road and bridge projects toward Member earmarks for bike paths, nature trails and inefficient urban transit systems.
Sure pork did not bring the bridge down, but if Minnesota Spends $1 Billion a Year for Neglible Light Rail Congestion Relief, you'd think maybe some of these distractions are certainly not helping. How about an earmark for a bridge with a known design flaw? One that is right out of a major metropolitan downtown area that was Minnesota's fifth–busiest, carrying 140,000 vehicles daily.

No, pork did not cause the gusset to fail. But IT’S ABOUT PRIORITIES: BIKE TRAILS OR HIGHWAYS? And if pork is the higher priority, then I'm not willing to toss it out as not being part of the problem. Monday morning quarterbacking, sure, but still...
10. Over 40% of the money earmarked by Congressman Oberstar for Minnesota from the 2005 Transportation bill went to bike trails, transit, and other non-road related spending. There was even a $25 million appropriation for a "non-motorized" transportation pilot program in the Twin Cities - using YOUR gas tax dollars.
How much of transportation funding goes elsewhere? Is our legislature even now addressing the funding priorities? Or does it still have systemic issues?
The transportation debate in Minnesota is multifarious and most of the time pits the usual political forces against one another. By leaving the pending $1 billion pork strewn bonding bill (which could have been spent for roads and bridges, but instead will go for rail, zoos, bike paths, and happy trails) out of the debate, Mr. Kupchella has left his viewers wanting. And by saying the vehicle sales tax or MVET diversion of at least 40% to transit isn't really a "diversion" of funds because "that was decided by public vote just a few years ago" (actually it was just in '06), Mr. Kupchella seems to be suggesting that anything the voters or politicians decide on is above reproach. Strange idea for a newsman.
And do they still have their Hands In The Cookie Jar?

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