Local Infrastructure: The Devil is in the Details

About two months ago I rode my bike to work like any other day, but on the way home a construction project seemed to have spontaneously started at one of the bridges that I pass over. Three lanes had merged into one which, for a federal highway, seemed like a poorly planned traffic pattern for a such a major construction project. As it happens, about an hour after I biked across this bridge that morning both outside sections of the bridge fell into the water. There was no other physical damage that seemed to explain why parts of a bridge on U.S. 1 would suddenly collapse.

The intriguing thing about this bridge collapse was that the outer retaining wall and about half of the sidewalk on both the northbound side and the southbound side had fallen into the water at the same time. This likely wasn’t caused by something like a boat impact, car accident, or an overweight truck. Indeed, Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) investigated the incident and found that two post tension wires that held these sections of the bridge together had failed, making it unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists but also for any boaters below.

A view from the southern side of the bridge looking north. Half of the sidewalk and the outer wall are missing. FDOT rerouted pedestrian and vehicular traffic around the damaged sections using concrete barriers.

This bridge, like most bridges in south Florida, was built in the post-war era when Florida had just started becoming a place to live thanks to the widespread adoption of air conditioners. In the 1950s, when this bridge was first built, the population of Palm Beach County was around 100,000. Now that number is around 1.5 million. The story is the same across most of the country, where it would have been impractical to have designed for such a huge population increase. Adding to the problem is the fact that maintenance budgets that are continually cut because it’s difficult to understand that something as permanent and strong as a bridge would need to be maintained. And even that assumes that infrastructure is being thought about at all; most people don’t think about infrastructure unless there’s a failure.

It’s hard to say for sure if more maintenance would have helped this bridge, anyway. It was inspected in 2015 and deemed “safe” although its rating of 75.8 out of 100 merited a “functionally obsolete” status. The fact that major portions of the bridge fell into the water would also indicate that “functionally obsolete” may have been a better indicator of this bridge’s condition than “safe”.

This bridge isn’t one of the largest pieces of infrastructure in the United States or a bridge on a major interstate. It’s even possible to drive around this bridge with only minor inconvenience. But that’s the real problem with the looming infrastructure crisis: It’s hard for major pieces of infrastructure to get funding for repairs or replacements, let alone minor pieces of infrastructure like this unassuming bridge in North Palm Beach, Florida. There are many more bridges over small rivers and creeks (and even other roads) than there are bridges over major rivers. The infrastructure that needs the most attention is often the most overlooked. And we’ve only been focusing on bridges in this article; roads, the power grid, agriculture, water and wastewater systems, and canals get almost universally negative ratings from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Infrastructure Failures Throughout the U.S.

The story in Florida isn’t an isolated one, either. The city of Charleston, South Carolina floods almost every time it rains during a high tide, yet the city has been exceptionally slow to improve pumping stations and drainage around the worst-affected areas. The problem is virtually the same as the one playing out in Florida: uncontrolled growth and an unwillingness to fund necessary upgrades and maintenance are combining to form a perfect storm. Charleston’s problem is compounded by the fact that it is built on a swamp, which doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions for drainage.

There are other relatively small infrastructure problems across the country as well. A bridge serving an interstate in Atlanta collapsed recently, although this seems to have been a complication of storing construction material underneath bridges rather than a direct failure of the bridge itself. There was also an 11-hour blackout at the busiest airport in the world, also coincidentally in Atlanta, due to inadequacies in the power grid. In places of the country that aren’t Atlanta, an 80-year-old water system in a small town in Oklahoma has been on the brink of failure, and a critical (and aging) energy hub in Oregon is at risk of major damage from earthquakes.

Again, keep in mind that these problems are relatively minor in the grand scheme of American infrastructure. None of the problems mentioned here have resulted in the kind of tragedy seen in the I-35 disaster in Minnesota, for example, but these kinds of problems are widespread, often unnoticed, and permeate virtually every aspect of daily life for the people who live anywhere in the country.

One side of the North Palm Beach drawbridge stuck in the “open” position.

To further illustrate this point, at least for me, another bridge on my commute experienced a failure of sorts just this past week. The one drawbridge I pass over failed to close, and although they were able to close the bridge within the day this still impacted hundreds of drivers for one mechanical failure. The bridge was built at about the same time as the other bridge was, and if this bridge suffered a major and permanent failure it would be a major problem for everyone in the area. Also, if two out of the three bridges in a 13-mile stretch of road have had visible problems in the past five months, imagine how many other infrastructure problems are lurking under the surface, unnoticed by the civil engineers who have to solve these problems despite continual cuts to their maintenance budgets.

102 thoughts on “Local Infrastructure: The Devil is in the Details

  1. USA isn’t the only “developed” country with local government which do not understand the needs for basic living.
    Below a documentary about a few million appartments build in the UK in the 80’s which have such big defficiencies that they collapse under their own weight.
    (And nobody dares take any responsibility, everybody points to someone else)

    Inquiry. The Great British Housing Disaster (Adam Curtis, 1984)

  2. A canal towpath near me completely collapsed during the winter of 2015/2016 and still has yet to be fixed: http://madcyclelanesofmanchester.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/irwell-towpath-closed-in-ordsall.html

    Sure there alternate routes, but none that don’t involve a significant detour, departing from tarmac, or riding alongside cars. The crumbling infrastructure problem is not unique to the US, but a bridge serving a million people failing is certainly a bigger problem than this tow path.

  3. Well, reading this it almost seems that I should be glad that there is hardly any bridge at German autobahns that is not in the state of being repaired or where at least half the lanes are closed to reduce the load on the bridge (though not the blood-pressure of the drivers).

    I even have withnessed one such construction/repair site to be finished after a few years. So maybe there is actual hope, given that I still have about 40 years of life expectancy ahead…

    1. That’s what you get when people complain about literal hacks not being hacks. It doesn’t matter what is posted, complaints will rain regardless, so you can post whatever you want.

    2. Hackers are engineers. Engineers are (or at least, should be) all about learning from failure, in order to make the “next one” better.

      Thus, this is appropriate material. And very interesting.

      1. IMO hackers are not necessarily engineers. Hacking is about observing fundamental properties and principles, then applying all those in a new and unexpected way.

        Naive example: A hammer was design to hit with it, but if I realize that a hammer is also a heavy object, then I can use it as paperweight so the wind won’t spread away my (paper) floor plans. Using a hammer as a paperweight is a hack.

        Also, learning from mistakes is not engineer specific. Any human can do that, some animals can do that, too. IMO engineering is about designing while optimizing compromises, so the end product will be good enough for its goals and its specifications. Engineering is all about finding the best, but inside given boundaries and with _limited_ resources.

        Leaving all that aside, what exactly was I supposed to be learning about from this article (from either the engineer or the hacker standpoint)? I might be missing something, but all I could find was a rant about bridges, negligence and bad administration, all combined with random facts and events. OK for daily journalism, but offtopic for HaD.

  4. Maybe we need a change in attitude. We don’t value trades and upkeep as we should. A public figure could lead the charge to fix infrastructure and focus on improving quality of life.

    What I’m saying is Mario should put down the mushrooms and pick up a wrench to go back to fixing plumbing.

  5. While the article makes a good point that infrastructure maintenance is important I cringe whenever I see it brought up. It seems like every so often this becomes a hot issue for a while and some grants come down from the fed to the states or states to counties or something like that and the “construction” starts.

    The thing is that you can’t solve any problem by only throwing money at it. At the very least it is necessary to put some careful planning into how that money is going to be spent. The state of Michigan for example.. I don’t think they should have ANY money at all for road repair until they completely clean house and replace the people who direct where that money goes. All they do is spend every infrastructure dime they get on the same limited set of roads whether they need it or not. They pay their cronies in the construction industry by the day for every “active” construction site. Usually this means dozens of roads with lanes closed, orange cones and lowered speed limits lying completely untouched for every one site that is actually being worked on. I’ve seen orange construction barrels fade to yellow blocking the same un-touched and otherwise perfectly usable lanes for multiple years before any work finally begins. This happens in the same places repeatedly even if it isn’t needed while roads that haven’t even had a pothole filled in decades rot away.

    In places like that it would be better to just invest the tax money in education while the residents buy Jeeps.

  6. The term “functionally obsolete” in no way describes structural deficits, it is a term of art from traffic planning to note the traffic count has surpassed the design objectives of the conveyance. I.e, it’s too damn small, not that it’s falling apart. Get a clue.

  7. Or how about the old order of work mixup: They pave the road, and then in a month they decide they need to replace the underground pipes, and destroy the road surface again.

    Take that, optimizing algorithms!

    1. That has happened with remarkable regularity here in London.
      I’m pretty sure the same section of the North Circular (3-lane inner-city highway) has been constantly repaved for the last year or so.

  8. Take it easy bro, chillax. Blockchain will surely solve all of these problems and more. And if it doesn’t, I’m sure quantum computing will, or graphene, or big data, or nanoparticles. Just put your trust in the suits.

  9. Here in Australia we seem to get maintanence right. We dont generally have bridges falling into rivers (unless you get record levels of flooding caused by the tail end of a cyclone in which case even the best maintained bridge can still collapse :)

      1. Considering that in NSW road bridges, main roads and highways are the state government’s responsibility, the local council is very often are forced to sit back and wait for RMS (Roads and Maritime Service) to “pull their finger out” to even resurface roads.
        This leads to city councils (like Sydney City) having almost no responsibility for the roads running through them, as they are all main roads, tunnels, or freeways/highways and being unable by law to fix even minor problems themselves. Even the (apparently much maligned) disjointed cycle lanes built by SCC through parts of Sydney CBD had to be done with the permission of RMS, despite being one of the few road alteration projects paid for by council rate payers.
        Then there is the boondoggle of Westconnex, a freeway tunnel being built by the NSW state government which nobody seems to have wanted (except the civil construction companies) or has even bee fully designed (Where does it really go? How does it interchange with surrounding roads?) before construction began, making it seem (to the cynical) like a probable way for government money to be cycled back into the ruling political party via donations from the construction companies involved.

      1. This could have been before they had crews out to fix the issue, Road buckling happens a lot in Wisconsin and Minnesota due to the temperatures, In the summer if we have days nearing 100+ for several days the roads will start to buckle, and in the winter if we have several days of below zero it can also happen., and road crews will try and fix it as soon as they can but it depends how long it goes un noticed (usually an accident is what notifies them

        1. I live near there. That one was on a weekend, so traffic wasn’t so bad. Normally the lanes get closed and patched pretty quickly. This was caught by a traffic control camera… it’s not like someone went out there to film it.
          It’s really fun in the dark, or with a little ice, although the winter ones are generally not as extreme as this one.

  10. Not only bridges; roads are also the victim in budget slashes.
    This is an interesting old (2001) article from Time Magazine about the difference between highway construction in the US and Europe. Europe
    “In Europe, by contrast, maintenance and repair work begin before damage is even visible. During a 1990 study trip to Europe, a group of U.S. civilian and government experts was amazed to see maintenance work under way on highways considered to be in superb condition by American standards.”
    http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,159579,00.html

    Of course, we don’t fear to pay taxes as much as North-Americans.

    1. Well they could not be 100% certain about the strength of the materials being used so they were very conservative but their engineering generally stood the test of time so maybe we need to go back to making bridges that way.

      1. Unfortunately, safety doesn’t work like that. If you overbuild bridges by a factor of 5 instead of a factor of 2, your costs go up by about the same ratio, so you’ll only be able to build 2/5 the number of bridges for the same amount of tax money. Your politicians and governments will be unhappy because their constituents want more bridges, so they’ll hire engineers who will say things like “yeah, 2x is good enough.” You’ll go bankrupt, and they’ll laugh their way to the bank (until the next bridge collapse happens, at which point the same crop of politicians wrings their hands nervously and blame everyone else for the failures.)

        Of course, as long as you’re overbuilding you’ll get some absolutely beautiful structures like the Forth Bridge (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forth_Bridge). So in the end it’s worth it to overbuild anyway!

    1. Only 27.5 billion of the stimulus when to fixing the highways.
      https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/44th_president/stimulus
      I do know of one way to get the money to fix the infrastructure but it’ll involve stepping on the toes of a lot of fat cats and closing down a lot of gravy trains
      First forget about the Mexico wall most illegal don’t enter that way they just over stay their visa and disappear ,end the war on drugs,disband the DEA,disband DHS esp the TSA airport go back to private baggage checkers but have them tested regularly,get rid of private prisons as they actually turned out to cost more and even try to make such people they release end up getting arrested again, legalize pot federally and tax it.

  11. “There was also an 11-hour blackout at the busiest airport in the world, also coincidentally in Atlanta, due to inadequacies in the power grid.”

    You can’t blame that one on “the” power grid, it was the fault of “the airports” power grid. They had a single point of failure and didn’t know it. At work I’ve had to deal with isolating critical systems physically, not just having redundancy. There was probably never a design requirement for it at Atlanta, or any other airport. Usually its just the cheapest power distribution system that’s designed.

      1. I haven’t confirmed that ATL has any, but given they seem to have their own water treatment facility, there isn’t much chance that they don’t have some back up generators. The issue, i’m guessing, is a single point of failure in some sort of switch gear to allow power to flow to the airport from either the generators or the utility power. If that single point of failure broke (as in needed replacement) then yes it could take 11 hours to figure out what is broken and get it replaced.

        If i take georgia powers statement as true, then it seems like a fire may have caused some switchgear to fail, and due to close physical proximity the backups were also impacted. The work to fix seems to also have been delayed by inadequate smoke purge capacity from the vent fans.

        Anyways, these sorts of long outages, are almost always double or triple failures, or cascade failures on systems that are not routinely tested. Testing a hot transfer from utility to generators on the full airport simultaneously isn’t something anyone really wants to do ever, as there will always be some impact.

  12. This is a political issue. Unless people actively want to do something about it, and vote accordingly, nothing will change.

    Prague city center, together with much of the infrastructure, was crippled by 2002 floods. It took years of political action. But now the city works better than ever before.

    My point is: you know what the problem is. NOW DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

  13. Louisana is even worse off. our state is over a billion dollars in debt–partially due to our old governer who has no idea where the money went *wink*–and we need a new bridge into our capital. Of the two that we currently have, one is over 75 years old and has cracks running through it’s support pylons (made worse by the fact that it’s the only railroad bearing bride for miles on the mississippi river), and the other is becoming unstable due to the river overflowing so much in recent years, and foundational issues. If those bridges go, the city will essentially grind to a halt, and the loss of life will be catastrophic (both are heavily trafficed).
    If we don’t get our act together, crumbling infrastructure is gonna be the death of this country.

    1. [quote] If we don’t get our act together, crumbling infrastructure is gonna be the death of this country.[/quote]

      Perfect storm is that and some other things coming together overwhelming a society’s systems that weren’t designed for it. Problem with handing everything to the future is when the bill comes due.

  14. Not to shoot down a good article, but isnt this like, old news? I hear this every few months on the news in central Europe, America doesn’t spend nearly enough money on their infrastructure, and lately they’ve been paying the price (as sinkholes are on the rise & bridges keep falling, not to mention things like New Orleans..)

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