The weakest link. The Minnesota bridge tragedy – could it happen here?
By Lauren Corey, MBTA President
On August 1, the I-35W bridge collapsed during the evening rush hour in Minneapolis. Thirteen people died in the tragic event, and it didn’t take long for people all over the country to start asking the question: Could it happen here?
The truth is, it could happen anywhere – even in Maine. Our transportation system has thousands of “weak links,” and many of them are bridges. There are 70,000 deficient bridges in the United States – over 300 of them are right here at home (Maine, in fact ranks 13th in the nation for percent of deficient bridges). In a congressional hearing about the bridge collapse before the House Transportation Committee, Minneapolis The truth is, it could happen anywhere –even in Maine. Our transportation system has thousands of “weak links,” and many of them are bridges. There are 70,000 deficient bridges in the United States – over 300 of them are right here at home (Maine, in fact ranks 13th in the nation for percent of deficient bridges). In a congressional hearing about the bridge collapse before the House Transportation Committee, Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak was blunt. He told members that the deaths in the collapse “were not an act of God, but a failure of man, and a failure of our inability to invest in basic core infrastructure.”
Here in Maine, when the Transportation Committee met in late August, engineers from MaineDOT were equally straightforward when reporting on the status of the state’s bridge inspection program. MaineDOT Maintenance Engineer John Buxton told committee members, “Inspections don’t fix bridges.” Buxton’s message was loud and clear, but the true test will be what the people of Maine and our leaders decide to do in the coming months. Will we continue with business as usual, making do with a shrinking piece of the pie? Not only bridges are at stake. We have many other weak links in our transportation system.
Will we begin to make those tough decisions – what roads will we allow to further deteriorate? Which bridges will we close? What other transportation infrastructure will we have to sacrifice for lack of funding? Or will we do as the generation before us did and make a commitment to investing in a modern, safe and efficient transportation system?
I think we only need to look to the Maine people for the answer. Maine voters’ record on transportation is clear – not once in the past 38 years have they rejected a transportation bond that included highway projects. Citizens clearly see the need and are willing to invest. The problem is, bonding is just a short-term answer.
In late August, the Transportation and Appropriations committees took up the long-term funding discussion with renewed zeal, the I-35W bridge collapse being still fresh in everyone’s minds. Legislators from both committees agreed to jointly study a range of potential funding sources including looking at how the fuel tax is levied; registration and title fee increases; and bridge and highway tolls. The goal is to begin to piece together a long-term solution to rehabilitate the state’s aging transportation infrastructure. So, what will ultimately be the weakest link? We know that the public feels strongly about the need for investment in our critical transportation infrastructure. But we can just as easily become the weakest link, if we step back and let the debate disintegrate without demanding definitive action from our leaders. We need our legislators’ determined commitment to reverse years of neglect to our highways, bridges, airports, ports and rail. The MBTA will be calling on all of our members to help educate legislators about the benefits of infrastructure investment and the costs of neglect. I hope you will join us – and encourage your family, friends and co-workers to get involved – in our continued efforts to advocate for a modern, efficient and safe transportation system for Maine.
Finally, I would like to say how wonderful it was talking with so many of you in recent months at the MBTA Infrastructure Fund Golf Tournament, our Washington and Aroostook county meetings and our Fall Convention. We have many events upcoming this fall and winter – including the Maine Transportation Achievement Awards. I hope you will join me in congratulating Walter Parady, Don Raye and the Honorable Christine Savage, and join us on November 2th for the awards banquet. It will be quite an event! Please be sure to mark your calendar for the Maine Transportation Conference on December 6th, too. We have a great roster of speakers planned, and it should be a lively and informative forum. See you soon!