Bridge Safety Is Expensive

The American Society of Civil Engineers has said it will cost $4.5 trillion by 2025 to fix U.S. infrastructure. We have 614,000 bridges alone, a third of them more than half a century old, and 56,000 structurally deficient, says the Federal Highway Administration.

One of these, which is vital to coastal traffic but makes locals cringe, is the Interstate 10 bridge at Lake Charles, Louisiana. It is an arguing point in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, because it illustrates tensions between right and left—especially as it plays out between government responsibility and corporate liability.

In 1994 Conoco spilled 1.7 million pounds of ethylene dichloride near the bridge, which is said to be turning its clay substrate into slime. No one can agree on how or if to clean up the contamination, and no one wants to pay for it. Repairs or replacement of the bridge have been discussed for decades, but the state is often ranked dead last for its economy—in part because the state government gave away too much to Big Oil in subsidies, incentives, and tax breaks.

A new bridge, north of the current bridge and the spill, will be $800 million, says the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. With “Value Engineering Alternatives” (which do not sound great) cost might be reduced to $400-600 million. The LADOTD’s entire statewide budget for maintenance and capital improvements is only $650-800 million, and they have a $13 billion backlog on infrastructure commitments. Federal funds are said not to be available (the state defaulted on a previous federally-funded project), and a proposed gas tax will not pay for a new bridge.

The current I-10 bridge is a steel-truss bridge, 1¼ miles long, which carries four lanes of traffic over the Calcasieu River. There is water everywhere here, and few paths for east-west traffic from New Orleans to Houston. Seventy-four thousand vehicles used the bridge daily in 2015, which rose to almost 82,000 in 2016, and is more now, since population is up, and the only alternative, the I-210 bypass bridge, is being repaired.

Built in 1952, the I-10 bridge is deemed “Structurally Deficient” by the National Bridge Inventory, a Federal Highway Administration database that records and grades bridges more than 20 feet long that carry traffic. It was designed to last 50 years, with less than half its current traffic. Railings do not meet “currently acceptable standards.” Deck and super/sub-structure do not meet standards. Its condition is “basically intolerable requiring high priority of corrective action.” Overall it rated 6.6 percent sufficiency. The Minneapolis bridge for I-35W that collapsed in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145, was rated at 50 percent. In 2015 there were 141 other deficient bridges in Calcasieu Parish (county), which contains Lake Charles.

The Minneapolis collapse was from an actual design flaw and overloading. But most bridge failures are due to other causes, such as tanker fires weakening the steel, trucks hitting an upper truss (upper girders share the load on truss bridges), floods, or barges running into supports. (In 2001 and 2002 in Texas and Oklahoma, a total of 22 were killed and 13 injured after barge damage).

Still, U.S. bridges have had an astonishing safety record. Have a look at bridge disasters through time and in other countries, and you will see that we have done well so far. When a bridge collapsed over the Douro river, in Portugal, in 1809, with people on it fleeing the French army, 4,000 died. In circumstances that might better apply to the I-10 bridge, the Can Tho Bridge, in Vietnam, collapsed in 2007 on its sandy foundation; 55 died, and hundreds were injured.

Frustrated with inaction by the state, the Chamber of Southwest Louisiana created a task force in 2017 to study the bridge problem. They have just released a report that contains a proposal for a new bridge. They recommend a combination of public and private funding, with a toll system to earn it back. They hope to begin construction in August 2020, but no definite plans are known.

“If the bridge is not replaced in the next five years, Southwest Louisiana and the entire country could suffer drastic consequences,” they say. “The cost of doing nothing could result in the loss of life, devastating traffic congestion, loss of large scale capital investment, [and] distribution and logistical delays.”

In the meantime, drivers dissociate from the danger of crossing it, sometimes twice daily, in order to block the special combination of fears that come with a high place, big water, and the betrayal by engineering that is meant to convey one safely to the other side.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.