The I-35 W Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed at 6:05 pm CDT last night. The Strib reports: 9 dead, 60 injured, 20 missing after dozens of vehicles plummet into river
This is of course a tragedy for those directly involved. I myself was driving under the bridge earlier yesterday with family. Fortunately that was 3 hours earlier, and everyone in my immediate family is safe. It is of course shocking to think about this bridge that I have traveled hundreds of times (about 2 miles from my house) collapsing. Having just returned to Minneapolis about 36 hours ago (I was actually going to say something nice about Northwest Airlines), this was not the welcome I was seeking.
I have some random thoughts below,
== Network Effects ==
What will be the effects of the collapse on traffic?
Networks are complex things. MnDOT has suggested using the roughly parallel MN-280 as a bypass, and have (temporarily?) converted the road to a freeway by turning to green the only traffic light on the road (why was the light never replaced earlier?)
There are other possible substitutes, that MnDOT and the local neighborhoods will not want to encourage as bypasses. For long distance trips, the I-494/I-694 beltway, US-169, Mn 100, and I-35E will one suspect get additional traffic. (hypothesis #1).
For shorter distance trips, traffic that would have gone down I-35W may divert to Mn-280, Broadway to I-94, or Snelling Avenue (which is a limited access highway for a good stretch, and should be immediately have its traffic signals retimed to accommodate additional traffic)
It might take some time for a new equilibrium pattern of traffic to re-emerge. It is still summer vacation period, so the University of Minnesota has not started a full fall semester, and traffic levels are relatively low, giving some change to adjust. The day after Labor Day will be another time to test.
As a result of this however, some other problem sections of road may no longer be as problematic. The merge from I-35W sb to I-94 wb should not cause problems for instance (hypothesis).
There might be interactions with the Crosstown reconstruction, as that is also discouraging traffic from using I-35W a few miles south. It might make more sense now to consider just closing all of I-35 W so they can do the reconstruction faster (assuming closure would make it easier to do the construction under the current design).
== Reconstruction ==
Some recent bridge collapses (I-580 in the Bay Area) were remedied quite quickly. I think this will be longer. First it is a much larger bridge. Second, it will clearly require redesign, as the first design failed for "unknown" reasons (as opposed to a a truck exploding, which may not be worth defending against).
== Structures ==
I am not a structural engineer. This report by my late colleague Bob Dexter is interesting
Fatigue Evaluation of the Deck Truss of Bridge 9340
Robert Dexter, Heather O'Connell, Paul Bergson
Report no. Mn/DOT 2001-10
Of course the abstract, while noting problems with the design,it said "As a result, Mn/DOT does not need to prematurely replace this bridge because of fatigue cracking, avoiding the high costs associated with such a large project." This was published 6 years ago , probably finished 7 years ago, and things change. Reports in the news media say the bridge was structurally deficient. We still don't know what element of the bridge failed first, or if the construction on the bridge had any role (one suspects it does, but that is still speculation).
== Politics ==
(1) Allocation of resources to new facilities rather than repair and maintenance.
This is a classic problem in transportation funding. Ribbon cuttings on new projects are much more politically "sexy" than maintaining what we have. People are also more interested in road surface than the underlying structure. Yet pavement failure, while bad, is not nearly as bad as structural failure. "Failure" in the traffic level of service sense, while economically costly and personally annoying, and perhaps leading to more (or at least different) crashes, does not have anywhere near the same connotation as structural collapse.
(2) Vetoing the gas tax
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty recently vetoed a legislature-passed increase in the gas tax that could have raised money to repair bridges like this one. The latest gas tax would not have solved this problem, but previous taxes that were not passed (due in part to Pawlenty's previous veto threat) may have, had the money been spent on this kind of thing.
(3) Pointing fingers
It is too soon to say "J'accuse". Most people will probably want to wait for rescue and recover operations to be complete, and then for memorial services, and then for a more thorough investigation. However, MSNBC was starting early speculating in which direction the fingers would wind up pointing.
(4) Funding the stadiums
Minnesota is in the process of building 3 new stadiums (Twins, Gophers, and eventually the Vikings). Is this the best use of local funds? Hopefully this will be a shock to the system.
== U of Mn ==
Keeping with the University of Minnesota tradition, classes will go on today as scheduled. Classes were cancelled on 9.11, but that happened the same day.
== Crisis vs. Opportunity ==
Rebuilding the bridge is of course a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to do something interesting. I speak in particular of air rights. A bridge over the Mississippi is expensive. But imagine having a 2 or 3 story office building hanging from below, or built above the highway. A view of the river from offices is probably among the best in Minnesota. It will not impair other's view of the river especially much, and would generate a significant amount of revenue to pay for reconstruction.
An example would be the historic London Bridge, which had houses and stores along the side, encroaching on travelways. There are better ways to combine transportation arteries with development opportunities, and creative design can show the way.