NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 10, 2007

In the wake of the deadly Minnesota bridge collapse, most Americans seem to think we need to spend much more to fix our "crumbling bridge system."  In fact, our nation's bridge system is far from crumbling, says John R. Lott, senior research scientist at the University of Maryland, and his son, Maxim C. Lott.

The I-35W bridge collapse was a heart-rending tragedy, but emotions shouldn't drown out reality in the debate about what to do:

  • Much reporting has focused on loaded terms such as "structurally deficient" bridges, with papers across the country publishing lists of all such bridges in their area.
  • But the term simply flags a need for regular inspections and repairs or upgrades.
  • As the U.S. Department of Transportation notes in its 2006 report on bridge conditions, "The fact that a bridge is 'deficient' does not immediately imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe."

By any measure, even "structurally deficient" bridges are extremely safe.  According to the New York State Department of Transportation:

  • Of the 1,500 U.S. bridge collapses from 1966 to 2005, some 400 were the result of collisions, overloading or fires -- problems maintenance is unlikely to prevent.
  • Fewer than 1,100 collapses were caused by poor construction, materials, age, wear or other "miscellaneous" factors.
  • In fact, 80 percent of those collapses were caused by "scouring" -- the removal of sediment from the water around the bridge's pillars.

Those 1,100 collapses work out to 25 a year.  Since there are nearly 600,000 bridges in the United States, the odds of any given bridge falling are only about one 240th of 1 percent.  Even if the collapsed bridges were all among the 72,000 deemed "structurally deficient," the odds rise only to less than a 30th of 1 percent.

Source: John R. Lott and Maxim C. Lott, "FALLING BRIDGES," New York Post, September 7, 2007.

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