Magazine article USA TODAY

Can U.S. Infrastructure Really Be Fixed?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Can U.S. Infrastructure Really Be Fixed?

Article excerpt

After the tragedy in Minneapolis in which the Interstate 35 West bridge collapsed, many of us feel at least a twinge of anxiety when driving over such structures. Barry B. LePatner, author of Structural & Foundation Failures and Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry, says structural failures always are the result of one or a combination of four factors: improper design, improper construction, defective materials incorporated into the structure, or design loads being exceeded. Add the passage of time and the fact that proper maintenance budgets often are shortchanged, and you are looking at the next potential disaster.

"Many of America's big bridges were built around the turn of the [20th] century," he points out. "In such instances, patchwork solutions often only exacerbate already existing problems. These structures simply weren't designed to last 100 years or more without major renovations."

The biggest problem, he notes, has nothing to do with engineering--and everything to do with politics. To put it bluntly, politicians do not get votes for refurbishing infrastructure. "If it's not sexy, they're not interested in backing it. For decades, our nation has closed its eyes to reams of engineering analysis and reports that have highlighted the deteriorating nature of our infrastructure and the costs of remediation--costs that increase exponentially as every year passes" he warns. "Every politician has received these reports. Most push them aside for a successor to handle, or are willing to provide only a fraction of the necessary funds requested by their experts."

As a result, the problem has snowballed to staggering proportions. Estimates vary on how much remediation of America's infrastructure is needed, but most experts agree the cost is well into the hundreds of billions. The good news, LePather points out, is that we as a nation now have a chance to redeem our former neglect. "The Minneapolis bridge collapse has been a terrible tragedy, but often out of crisis comes opportunity, This is no exception. This event can act as a springboard for transforming the way we think about, not only our nation's infrastructure. but the nature of the construction industry itself."

So, what needs to happen now to prevent other Minneapolis-caliber disasters from occurring in the future? LePatner offers the following solutions:

Establish a standardized nationwide system for categorizing the remediation needs of America's infrastructure. Right now, reporting is subjective. "We need a nationwide standard for categorizing these remediation needs---at both state and Federal levels--and for training inspection engineers. That way, we can assure uniformity of infrastructure assessments, and serious problems in bridges, tunnels, and highways will be more likely to be reported and dealt with. …

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