Baltimore bridge collapse highlights fragility of infrastructure nationwide

New York’s George Washington and Verrazzano-Narrows bridges are vulnerable to the same domino-effect catastrophic collapse that brought down the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, a new analysis warns, according to the New York Post.

Officials had previously found that the Key Bridge was designed in such a way that if even a single steel component of the span failed, the entire structure could fail.

This is exactly what happened when the massive Dali container ship struck one of the vertical supports last week, the whole 1.6-miles bridge crumbled into the Patapsco River.

At least 17,000 structures in the US have “fracture critical” construction like the Key Bridge did — among them some of the nation’s largest and most famous bridges, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing the Natation Transportation Safety Board.

The Journal singled out eight bridges that have similar characteristics to the Key Bridge — including the two New York landmarks.

The state of infrastructure in the United States has been characterized by a blend of gradual improvements amidst enduring challenges. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) had given U.S. infrastructure a grade of C- in its 2021 report, indicating slight progress from previous assessments but still underscoring a substantial need for investment and upkeep in areas ranging from roads and bridges to water systems.

The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021 marked a significant commitment to addressing these issues, allocating approximately $1.2 trillion towards enhancements across various infrastructure domains, including the expansion of broadband and electric vehicle charging stations. This legislation aims to not only improve conditions but also to foster sustainability and create jobs, though its impacts are anticipated to unfold over the coming years.

Despite this influx of investment, many U.S. infrastructure components continue to age and deteriorate, with a significant number of bridges and roads deemed structurally deficient and in need of urgent repair. The pandemic further highlighted the critical nature of digital infrastructure, revealing stark disparities in broadband access that the recent legislation seeks to ameliorate.

Moreover, the challenges posed by climate change are increasingly influencing infrastructure planning, with a growing emphasis on resilience against extreme weather events and environmental sustainability. Urban areas and public transit systems, already strained before the pandemic, now face additional pressures to adapt to changing usage patterns and to innovate within mobility solutions.

Water infrastructure, too, confronts issues of aging facilities, contamination, and capacity, with new funding directed towards improving water quality, replacing hazardous materials, and enhancing treatment processes.

The last two U.S. presidential administrations, under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, have both taken steps to address the nation’s infrastructure challenges, though their approaches and successes have varied.

Trump Administration (2017-2021)
The Trump administration emphasized the need for infrastructure investment, proposing a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that aimed to leverage public and private funding to overhaul American infrastructure. The plan sought to stimulate investment in a variety of projects, including transportation, water systems, and broadband.

One of the administration’s notable actions was to streamline federal permitting processes to expedite infrastructure projects. The goal was to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and speed up the development and repair of infrastructure across the country. In 2020, the administration finalized rules to overhaul the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes, aiming to expedite environmental review and approval processes for infrastructure projects.

Despite these efforts, the administration faced challenges in passing a comprehensive infrastructure bill through Congress, and the ambitious $1 trillion plan did not come to fruition as proposed.

Biden Administration (2021-present)
The Biden administration made infrastructure a central focus of its agenda, culminating in the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021. The IIJA is a bipartisan effort that allocates approximately $1.2 trillion over eight years to modernize and repair the nation’s infrastructure. It includes significant investments in roads, bridges, public transit, water infrastructure, broadband expansion, and the electric grid, among other areas.

A distinctive aspect of the Biden administration’s approach is its emphasis on broadband access and clean energy as critical components of modern infrastructure. The IIJA includes provisions to achieve universal broadband coverage and invest in clean energy initiatives, such as electric vehicle charging infrastructure and renewable energy projects.

The Biden administration has also stressed the importance of building infrastructure that is resilient to climate change and equitable for all Americans. This includes efforts to ensure that investments support underserved communities and contribute to environmental sustainability.

Both administrations have recognized the critical need for infrastructure improvement in the United States and have taken steps to address these challenges, albeit with different strategies and outcomes. The Trump administration focused on regulatory reforms and proposed significant investment plans, while the Biden administration successfully passed a landmark infrastructure bill that emphasizes not only traditional infrastructure projects but also broadband, clean energy, and climate resilience.

The current trajectory of U.S. infrastructure reflects a cautiously optimistic outlook, where recent investments signal a dedication to overcoming longstanding deficiencies. Nonetheless, the magnitude of the challenges ahead demands continuous effort, substantial funding, and innovative approaches to ensure infrastructure can meet future demands and resilience criteria. The evolution of these efforts will necessitate ongoing updates and research to effectively gauge progress and adjust strategies as needed.