The partial collapse Thursday of an aging bridge on Interstate 5 in Washington state serves as a reminder of the deteriorating state of core components of the nation's aging infrastructure. All too frequently, it takes a disaster of epic proportions to propel government and its citizens to action.
Fortunately, that did not occur in this case, but nonetheless communities throughout the nation, including ours, should take this as a wake-up call. At the very least, we should begin performing basic checks of the bridges, dams and overpasses that we rely upon daily.
As America's infrastructure ages, advances in engineering and technology come along that are capable of improving safety. But as funding for improvements and upgrades dwindle -- blame politics or bureaucracy, either will do -- the prospects for failure increase.
It was almost six years ago that a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, and this one had disastrous results. More than 100 cars dropped into the Mississippi River, killing 13 and injuring 145 people. An investigation showed that a design flaw was the cause, and the National Transportation Safety Board chairman promised that the lessons learned from Minneapolis would "provide a roadmap for improvements to prevent future tragedies."
That hasn't happened. Andrew Hermann, the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, told ABC News last year that while the nation has an aggressive bridge inspection program, the government is still not spending enough money on updating and maintaining the nation's infrastructure.
"Congress basically lacks the courage to do what is needed to raise the funds," he said. "Bridges require maintenance, and maintenance and rehabilitation require funding. ... Politicians like to show up and cut a ribbon on a brand-new bridge, but they don't like to show up and applaud a new paint job that may increase the life of a bridge."
A recent "report card" issued by the ASCE gives the nation's infrastructure an overall grade of D+, which it classifies as "poor." Bridges and dams, and we have a few in Kern County, get a C+ (mediocre) and D+.
Kern actually fared better than the rest of the state in a 2010 report card by the ASCE. We earned an overall C+, but 57 percent of our roads are classified as "poor."
A comprehensive safety check of Kern's bridges, overpasses and dams would represent a mere baby step. Funding for the nationwide improvements that the NTSB promised would be coming after the Minneapolis bridge collapse should be elevated to a congressional priority.
We got lucky with the I-5 bridge collapse, which was caused by a truck that exceeded height limitations. Heaven forbid the next one might be another Minneapolis.