Collapse brings bridge issues to forefront

Whether it's bridge collapses or trapped miners, any incident of national interest inevitably triggers public hand wringing, finger pointing, and pontificating.

Whether it's bridge collapses or trapped miners, any incident of national interest inevitably triggers public hand wringing, finger pointing, and pontificating.

The August 1 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minnesota was no exception.

Captured on video that was not only broadcast ad infinitum on cable TV, but also posted for consumption on YouTube and elsewhere online, the collapse, which killed at least 11 people and injured dozens more, has raised questions about the safety of bridges and adequacy of investment in them and other infrastructure across the country.

But while the topic may seem new to those who weren't paying attention, experts and advocates within the field of infrastructure say all the issues being debated right now - Is there enough funding? Are inspections adequate? - were already well known to state and federal transportation departments, trade associations, and Congress.

But the increased media attention, spurred on - at least in part - by the concerned public, has elevated the under-the-radar conversation. Rich Kirkpatrick, press secretary for Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation, says media inquiries have been "very, very high," with most questions focused on potential hazards associated with particular bridges in the state, especially those termed "structurally deficient."

Media coverage naturally creates tremendous fear in people, and his department and those in other states have been working hard to overcome that by interacting with reporters and posting information on Web sites.

"In everybody's mind, structurally deficient equates with collapse," Kirkpatrick says. "We've had to do a lot of work with people explaining that, no, that's not the case. Structurally deficient is a term to describe varying levels of deterioration in bridge structures, and the state departments of transportation know all about it. It's an ongoing issue of managing your bridge system so you know where your trouble spots are."

While media coverage has flared up in the aftermath of the collapse, raising the question of whether infrastructure investment is adequate, Kirkpatrick and reps of associations and labor unions say they've long advocated increased federal funding. Congress had previously been considering various pieces of legislation, but groups say the added public attention has provided new inspiration to guarantee adequate funding.

Jeff Solsby, director of public affairs for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), says the collapse of the bridge has drawn significant media attention to ARTBA, which has sought to be a clearinghouse for statistics and other information on US roads and bridges.

"One approach we took in our communications was not to get into questions of cause and fault, because that is still under investigation... but to really offer ARTBA as industry experts," he says. "Also, there's this real void in the media for hard data, and if you look back at the coverage, there is a divergence in the numbers. So we wanted to put this information out without spin or bias."

Bevin Albertani, legislative representative for the Laborers International Union of North America, whose members represent many workers who build roads and bridges, says the group's communications efforts have been aided more by the Democratic takeover of Congress than the bridge collapse. Republicans have also recently called for support of various infrastructure-related measures, however, including an increase in the gas tax, so support has been bipartisan.

For now, media interest remains significant, in both the causes of the Minnesota bridge collapse and perceived dangers of local bridges. Solsby says media coverage of the collapse has trod the familiar path of immediate coverage and reaction, followed by in-depth looks at what actually happened, analysis of related regulatory policies.

"We sort of [are] in the middle of it at this point," he says. "There are some in-depth investigations that are going to raise some issues."

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