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  The American Surveyor     

I-35W Bridge Collapse 5th Anniversary (8/1)--Are Our Bridges Any Safer? Print E-mail
Written by Barry B. LePatner   
Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Is There a Dangerous Bridge in Your Town? A New Interactive Map May Give You the Answer. It’s been five years since the collapse of the I-35W Bridge, and this anniversary may lead you to wonder, Could it happen again, this time in my community? Infrastructure expert Barry LePatner says it’s very possible—and his new Save Our Bridges Interactive Map just might provide the answer.

New York, NY (July 2012)—August first marks the fifth anniversary of one of the most tragic infrastructure accidents in U.S. history. On that day in 2007, the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others. You might think our government sprung into action and started working aggressively to prevent other such tragedies in the future. You’d be wrong. Here’s what did happen:

          After 15 months of investigation, the November 2008 National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report advised the public and transportation officials around the country that the bridge collapse was a one-time occurrence, caused by a simple design error that had gone undetected during construction. Just over two years after the collapse, the Mn/DOT received more than $235 million in federal funds to build the replacement bridge and received accolades for its timely construction. And that was that.

          What the people of Minnesota never learned was that the Mn/DOT had known for several years that the I-35W Bridge was in danger of collapse. Consulting engineering reports informed the Mn/DOT of the bridge’s condition and recommended repairs at a cost of only $15 million. These recommendations were ignored.

          According to Barry LePatner, creator of www.SaveOurBridges.com, while the government treated the I-35W Bridge collapse as a “one-off,” the reality is that many other similar bridges create a peril for the U.S. traveling public.

          In fact, as recently as September 8, 2011, inspectors closed the I-64 Sherman Minton Bridge carrying six lanes of traffic across the Ohio River between Louisville, Kentucky, and New Albany, Indiana. This bridge, like the I-35W Bridge, was designed as fracture critical and had been rated structurally deficient. It, too, would have collapsed had serious cracks in the bridge not been discovered in time to avoid further tragedy.

          To bring attention to the dangerous state of the nation’s bridges, LePatner is marking the fifth anniversary of the tragic I-35W Bridge collapse by unveiling www.SaveOurBridges.com, a site educating the public on the dangerous bridges in their communities.

          “Federal and state governments are hiding the true state of disrepair of America’s infrastructure,” says LePatner, creator of www.SaveOurBridges.com and author of Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (www.TooBigToFall.com). “I, along with many other infrastructure leaders in the U.S., thought the I-35W collapse would be a wake-up call to the nation’s leaders. But it quickly became clear that the policymakers and government agencies in charge of infrastructure were content to sweep it under the rug and move on.”

          Of course, the public has a notoriously short memory, and government officials have other sexier, more vote-attracting fish to fry. But LePatner is adamant that if we don’t wake up and start treating America’s crumbling infrastructure as an urgent priority, similar collapses can and will happen.

          How severe is the problem? There are 600,000 bridges in the U.S. According to data presented by the Federal Highway Administration in 2009, 72,000 U.S. bridges are listed as structurally deficient, meaning the bridge has received a rating of “poor.” In the National Bridge Inventory 18,000 bridges are listed as fracture critical, meaning a bridge’s design lacks support to hold up the bridge if a single component fails. Prior to its collapse, the I-35W Bridge was both structurally deficient and fracture critical. There are 7,980 bridges, an average of 160 per state, still in use today that also fall into both categories.

          “Understand this,” says LePatner. “When a bridge receives a structurally deficient rating, it is ‘posted,’ meaning a portion of the lanes on the bridge must be closed to traffic or other weight limitations are imposed, such as preventing 18-wheel trucks across the bridge. When a bridge is posted, engineers consider that bridge to have already failed since it can no longer carry the full load intended when the bridge was initially designed. When a posted bridge is also fracture critical, the dangers it poses increase. We simply can no longer allow bridges that are both structurally deficient and fracture critical to go unrepaired.”

          Until now, there hasn’t been an easy-to-understand, easy-to-use source showing the 7,980 U.S. bridges that are both fracture critical and structurally deficient. The Save Our Bridges Interactive Map lets the public quickly and easily identify the dangerous bridges in their own communities and others to which they may travel. In other words, you can find out if your children’s school bus crosses any of these bridges and whether you cross one of them on your way to work, church, or any other location.

          “People have a right to know if they’re driving over dangerous bridges and why they’ve gone unrepaired,” says LePatner. “It’s simply not true that there is no money for infrastructure investment. The truth is, states aren’t required to spend the federal funds they’re given on bridge repairs. They can, and do, allocate half of that money to other projects. Over the years, politicians have used these funds to build new projects that lead to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, publicity, and votes. Bridge repairs just aren’t sexy enough.”

          Despite this poor decision making from state leaders and the slow economy, U.S. bridges can be repaired without impacting the deficit, insists LePatner. Repairing the top 2,000 bridges would cost an estimated $30-60 billion and would employ 1.2 million construction workers. These workers, many of whom would be coming off of unemployment, would pay back 30 percent of their money earned in income taxes, and much of the rest would be pumped back into the economy through their consumer spending.

          “The difficult truth revealed by the Save Our Bridges Map is that the nation’s leaders can’t wait any longer to provide the needed funding to make our bridges safe,” says LePatner. “They must act now. Concrete, steel, and money aren’t the only things at stake. Lives are at stake. Nothing is more important than that.”

Yes, We Can Afford To Fix America’s Infrastructure!
(7 Ways To Do It Without Going Broke)

          The nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of repair. But with decimated state budgets and an antiquated funding system that values big, flashy projects over repair and maintenance, finding the money is an uphill battle. And yet, here at the 5-year anniversary of the I-35W Bridge collapse, it’s critical that we figure out a way.

          Author Barry LePatner, creator of www.SaveOurBridges.com, provides his suggestions for infrastructure funding reform.

Improve funding oversight. The current system for overseeing the distribution of federal aid for state highway projects through the Federal Highway Administration is clearly broken. After funds are distributed to the states, it is hard to determine where the money goes. It’s critically important to ensure that forensic audits are provided for all construction projects in excess of $50 million. With the acknowledged fact that almost half of all labor costs on a project are wasted due to the inefficiencies of the construction industry, a higher level of transparency is needed to protect precious taxpayer dollars.

Since its inception, money collected as part of the federal gas tax has been used to build and repair the nation’s roadways. Over the years, though, state and federal officials have started reaching into that pot to fund other less-critical transportation projects not connected to roadways. Politicians frequently use infrastructure funds on new projects that will help them get re-elected—a practice often referred to as “the politics of ribbon cutting”—rather than on their state’s much-needed maintenance and repairs.

“According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the amount of money needed to fix and sustain our nation’s in¬frastructure exceeds $2 trillion,” says LePatner. “Finding the money will require the federal government to play an active role.

“It will require that infrastructure funds collected via an increase in gas taxes be used for their intended purpose. It will entail the development of new, creative relationships between the public and private sectors,” he elaborates. “It will require a renewed sense of urgency on the part of politicians. And it will involve an extensive re-education of our leaders and the public on how to develop regional transportation planning needed for the future growth of our nation.”

Demand true fixed-price contracts from contractors. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie froze plans to build a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River, he did so because he worried that potential cost overruns on the expensive project would be passed on to already struggling taxpayers. Construction cost overruns and missed project deadlines regularly plague projects in both the public and private sectors. The way to combat these cost overruns and protect state budgets and taxpayers from disaster is by demanding true fixed-price contracts.

“Most construction contracts contain loopholes that allow contractors to drive up the cost,” explains LePatner. “Standard contracts devised by members of the industry are generally insufficient as they a) fail to properly allocate risk among the parties and b) provide proven loopholes for contractors to make claims for additional costs.

“The right contract for any owner going into a project—be it public or private—is going to be one that offers a true fixed price,” he adds. “Securing true fixed-price contracts on infrastructure projects will require project architects and engineers to deliver construction documents for bidding that are fully detailed, complete in all respects, and coordinated with each other.”

Increase the use of money-saving technology. For a country generally smitten with technology, it’s ironic that it’s noticeably absent in maintaining our nation’s costly infrastructure. Using appropriate technology in our transportation infrastructure will produce enough savings to offset the stag¬gering costs resulting from the past few decades of deferred maintenance. New assessment technologies are central to overcoming the lim¬iting effects of visual inspection for both bridge management and funding allocation, and offer a variety of benefits to transportation departments and the public.

“Technology exists to anticipate bridge remediation years before rust, corrosion, and cracks in the structure appear,” says LePatner. “The federal government needs to provide states with funds to purchase this equipment and train their inspectors to use it. Enabling bridge inspectors to ensure precision and objectivity in their evaluation process, which in turn allows us to catch problems earlier when they are easier and cheaper to fix, can save state governments countless millions of dollars a year in unnecessary remediation costs.”

Raise the gas tax. The federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993. “It’s absolutely time to give serious consideration to increasing the federal gas tax,” says LePatner. “Most importantly, we must require that infrastructure funds collected via an increase in gas taxes be allocated for repairing the nation’s dilapidated roads and bridges.”

Increase the use of Public-Private Partnerships (P3s). It is time to actively incentivize private investors to assist in making our failing infrastructure strong again. First, of course, we must take the right precautions, says LePatner.

“We will have to ensure that there is a balance of competing governmental and private profit-seeking interests in P3 projects,” says LePatner. “We will also need to ensure that the proper financial advisors are sitting on the side of state and federal officials to balance out the experts who advise these private investors. By taking the right steps, we can devise several workable models to use P3s to improve the nation’s infrastructure while still protecting the traveling public from excessive toll rates and ensuring that the interests of truckers, railroads, union workers, and the towns and cities along those routes are fairly heard and balanced into the equation.”

Incentivize state and metro “remediation first” infrastructure projects. As Congress takes up reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation law, they should encourage support for states and cities willing to form a new partnership with the federal government.

“These partnerships should incentivize metropolitan areas to raise revenues for long-term regional funding of needed projects that will reduce congestion in our 100 largest cities,” says LePatner. “These ‘remediation first’ projects, where states allocate funding to the maintenance of existing systems, will also create as much as 17 percent more jobs than applying the same funds to new projects.”

Cap construction cost overruns. Construction exigencies are going to occur, but the process for identifying them and quantifying them can be improved. Through sophisticated negotiations, agreement on a true fixed cost for a project—one that factors in negotiated costs for potential contingencies—can be secured before construction begins.

“We can identify risks that may arise and secure agreement from contractors on pricing that caps potential cost increases and prevents unwarranted cost overruns,” says LePatner. “With this kind of reliable information in hand, cost-conscious politicians could begin to make the right decisions.”

About Barry B. LePatner:
Barry B. LePatner is founder of the New York City-based law firm LePatner & Associates LLP. He is author of Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-2264726-7-6, $25.00, www.BarryLePatner.com) and Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (University Press of New England, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9844978-0-5, $27.95, www.TooBigToFall.com).

For three decades, he has been prominent as an advisor on business and legal issues affecting the real estate, design, and construction industries. He is recognized as one of the nation’s leading advisors to corporate and institutional clients, real estate owners, and design professionals. Mr. LePatner has also been awarded the distinction of Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers magazine. In 2009, he was rated as one of the top ten real estate attorneys in New York City by the New York Observer.

A November 2007 Governing magazine article stated, “If there’s a guru of construction industry reform, it’s LePatner.” In November 2008, an article in New York magazine referred to Mr. LePatner as “a Cassandra of infrastructure.”

Mr. LePatner is recognized as a thought leader in the construction industry. As the coauthor of Structural and Foundation Failures (McGraw-Hill, 1982) and with 35 years of experience as a construction lawyer, he brings a special understanding of the engineering, business, and legal issues attendant to the design and construction processes—knowledge he put to good use in his latest book, Too Big to Fall. His second book, Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets, was very well received inside and outside the construction industry and helped create a national debate among owners, designers, and other key stakeholders.

Mr. LePatner has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Forbes.com, the Chicago Tribune, Infrastructurist.com, and other prestigious publications. His articles and speeches on the perilous state of our nation’s infrastructure have garnered widespread attention, including his serving as a commentator on the multi-billion-dollar stimulus plan of the Obama administration. He has appeared on many television and radio broadcasts, including interviews on CNBC, Fox Business Network, and several National Public Radio segments.

A nationally recognized speaker, Mr. LePatner has addressed audiences on topics central to the real estate and construction industries, including events sponsored by the International Economic Forum of the Americas, Syracuse University, and several construction industry associations with audiences including contractors, architects, engineers, construction technology experts, economic experts, and other construction industry thought leaders.

In 2002, Mr. LePatner was honored by the American Institute of Architects with its highest award to a non-architect when he was given an honorary AIA membership. He is also currently on the Board of Trustees of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). He has also served on numerous advisory committees including: the Advisory Board, Society for Marketing Professional Services; the Board of the New York Building Congress; Board of Advisors, Legal Briefs for the Construction Industry; American Institute of Architects Advisory Committee; and the National Academy of Sciences.

About the Books:
Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward (University Press of New England, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-9844978-0-5, $27.95, www.TooBigToFall.com) and Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America’s Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (University of Chicago Press, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-2264726-7-6, $25.00, www.BarryLePatner.com) are available at bookstores nationwide and all major online booksellers.

For more information, please visit www.TooBigToFall.com and www.BarryLePatner.com.

 
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