Here we are again, wringing our hands over another fatal infrastructure failure and wondering, "What's next?"

During the 1970s and '80s there was a rash of collapses of major highway bridges in the United States that are eerily similar to the tragedy in Minneapolis. Although these resulted in many deaths and economic disruption, they also resulted in action. Congress pumped millions into improving the condition of the nation's bridges. Obviously, this funding didn't go far enough.

Fortunately, catastrophic failures such as the one that occurred in Minneapolis are rare and almost always preventable if addressed in a timely manner. However, complacency can be disastrous. We should be very wary of claims that the situation is under control, that unsafe bridges will be closed immediately and that there's nothing to worry about. The levee failures in New Orleans should have taught us to parse such reassurances carefully.

Here in California we only have to look as far back as April, when a tanker truck fire destroyed a key off-ramp from the Bay Bridge, to see the havoc that even relatively minor disruptions to an overstressed highway system can cause. Since the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes in 1989 and 1994, the state has done a good job in reducing the seismic vulnerabilities of its bridges. But this is not enough. We need to ensure that we have well-funded programs in place to reduce the likelihood of "neglectful failures" to as near zero as possible.

The bridges around the Los Angeles ports are a good place to start. All projections show that goods movement will increase dramatically in the coming decades to become a major source of new jobs for the region. But, the trucks that are at the heart of the logistics industry really take a toll on bridges and pavements. A constant stream of heavy vehicles can prematurely age a bridge regardless of how well it was designed and constructed. The 40-year old Desmond Bridge is a good case in point. How well are all these bridges holding up under loads much greater than anticipated?

Not just bridges

Unfortunately, the problem goes much deeper than just bridges. All of California's infrastructure is aging and even Los Angeles has entered a genteel middle age. After every newsworthy infrastructure failure, the pundits say all the right things about the importance of sustaining these critical systems and politicians rush in with money to repair what could have been avoided. The simple truth is that we as a nation just don't have a particularly good track record when it comes to getting out front on infrastructure investment. We can always find something that has more appeal than maintaining and repairing bridges, roads, and levees. Without New Orleans as a backdrop, would Californians have supported the infrastructure bonds in 2006?


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