The Miami bridge collapse is just the latest in a string of fatal infrastructure failures, writes Joe Lloyd
A pedestrian bridge in Miami collapsed on Thursday, killing at least four people and injuring at least ten more; eight cars were crushed below. The bridge, which connected the main campus of the Florida International University (FIU) to the suburb of Sweetwater, had opened only six days ago. It was erected in response to the death of a student attempting to the cross the road.
The bridge – which, according to FIU president Mark Rosenberg had followed all federal procedures and used state-certified contractors – was the product of Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC), a technique whereby bridges are constructed in advance and then installed into place. According to its fact sheet, the FIU bridge was durable enough resist a category 5 hurricane and last for a century. On Thursday, evidence points to bridge only bearing the weight of a couple of construction workers, who were tightening some cables that had begun to loosen over the few week of operation.
Bolted together in-situ for ‘durability’
The US’s Federal Housing Administration (which is also responsible for urban development) recommend the method due to its speed, lesser distribution to roads and lower environmental impact, and claim that it produces “bridges that are more durable than those constructed using traditional methods.” There are strange echoes here of a tragedy from half a century ago, the 1968 explosion in the east London housing block Ronan Point. That too had been system-built off-site and then bolted together in-situ. In Britain, this led to a backlash against such prefabricated building techniques; it will be interesting to see if ABC starts to provoke a similar reaction.
The state of Florida is to determine who should be held accountable. Reporters have already pointed out the involvement of local firm FIGG in the bridge’s engineering. In 2012, a 90-ton piece of concrete fell from a railway bridge that they were erecting in Virginia. Their collaborators, the MCM construction company, have since 2013 been inspected eight times and fined four times for safety violations.
Just the latest bridge collapse
But this incident is not an isolated case. While in terms of loss of life it is the most severe bridge collapse America has suffered since 2007, it is one of a relentless stream of calamities caused by the country’s failing infrastructure. Last March, bridges subsided in Big Sur and Atlanta; four more crumbled in 2015. Since late December last year, four Amtrak trains have crashed or derailed, on three occasions resulting in fatalities. And it is not just transportation that is failing. In February 2017, the Oroville Dam’s spillway failed, forcing 200,000 residents to evacuate the Sacramento Valley; in 2007, an underground stream pipe in Manhattan exploded, provoking a geyser of filth and rubble that injured 45 and precipitated a death by heart attack.
The US’s failure to properly maintain its infrastructure has been well-documented. The last edition of the American Society of Civil Engineering’s quadrennial report, published March 2017, gave the country a D+ grade, a near-fail. It predicted a cost of $2tr to keep roads and bridges in working order: far more than what is currently budgeted.
Trump’s campaign promises
Into this mess steps an unlikely saviour. Donald Trump made the improvement of failing facilities a key plank of his presidential campaign. “Crumbling infrastructure,” he claimed in a speech last year, “will be replaced with new roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways gleaming across our beautiful land.” Remarkably, it seems this is something more than empty rhetoric. This January, he announced a $1.7tr investment strategy, to be put to congress later in the year.
The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 18, 2017
As so often, though, this commitment must be qualified. Only $200bn would come from the national purse, the rest being raised by states, cities and private companies. The bill will thusly amount to an encouragement rather than an order. Further, leaked document indicated that the administration plotted to reduce the percentage of infrastructure costs taken by the federal government to 20 per cent from the usual 80 per cent, a move that may discourage rather than motivate. As Richard Trumka, the head of America’s largest union and a long-term advocate of an infrastructure bill put it, “that’s not a plan. That’s a hope.”