35W bridge collapse offers nation infrastructure lesson

Pawlenty reopens highway
Gov. Tim Pawlenty at the recent unveiling of the $140 million "Unweave the Weave" project in the northern Twin Cities suburbs. Experts estimate Minnesota has $15 billion in unmet roadway and bridge repair and replacement needs.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Roberto Ballarini was next to the collapsed I-35W bridge in Minneapolis the morning after. He stood among people from the FBI, Homeland Security and transportation officials as an invited expert. Even then, Ballarini says, there was intense interest in what role weakened gusset plates may have played in the collapse of the span. Now, more than a year later, Ballarini says he does not disagree with the National Transportation Safety Board's official finding that underdesigned gusset plates were the root cause of the disaster.

"We also identified that as the possible culprit in this tragic event," he says.

The, 'we,' Ballarini refers to are a couple of other department of civil engineering faculty and some students at the U. They'll present pictures and a computer simulation of the collapse.

Their exploration, Ballarini says, is an academic exercise for the benefit of students and not an investigation meant to compete with the NTSB.

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Ballarini, ever the diplomat, describes the new 35W bridge as, "unassumingly elegant," and then in an aside says he would have added some touches to make it a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

Ballarini singles out what no one should miss; a typical completion time for a project the size of the new bridge is three years but it was completed in 11 months.

"That's also a testament to the industry in the United States that structure like that could be built so fast," he says.

Roberto Ballarini
Roberto Ballarini is a professor and head of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

The lesson from the 35W bridge building experience is if America decides to get to work repairing and replacing our infrastructure the job can be done fast and well.

And, Ballarini says, there's no shortage of work.

Italian by birth, Brooklyn by upbringing, Ballarini is not shy about laying it on the line. The country's crumbling infrastructure is a national security issue.

"What happens in New York City when a pipe main breaks or a water distribution system breaks? Could you imagine New York City without water for three weeks, it's our financial center, right?

Now for the price tag.

Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers, Ballarini's professional colleagues, create a report card for and a cost estimate of fixing the country's infrastructure.

How does the estimate for this year of $1.6 trillion strike you? Put it in perspective, Ballarini says.

"We have a $700 billion (financial) bailout and we have a $700, $800 billion war, so it's not that we can't generate that money," he says.

Still in his straight talk mode, Ballarini does not shy away from making some value judgements about how to spend the money. Our preoccupation with cars has to change.

"The days where you could have one car going 80 miles round trip to work I would say that borderlines on decadency, right, I mean, so we have to find in the future different ways of getting around." he says.

Not repairing the country's infrastructure risks a brain drain - we need to put the smart people to work, he says.

The rest of the world covets America's best minds and is working to attract them. That's why Ballarini defines infrastructure in very broad terms.

"The infrastructure also includes education, it includes all sorts of things, cultural institutions," he says.

This appears to be a propitious moment for Roberto Ballarini's message.

A growing number of federal and state lawmakers appear to favor spending more in infrastructure both to address years of deferred maintenance and putting people back to work.

Ballarini's advice?

Don't bank on the leaders following through.

"I'm convinced through education and grass roots movements that we could get these things done. One of the things I'll talk about is that we can't rely on people at the very top to lead us. The United States is a nation which does things from the grass roots. We need people to get involved. We need people to vote into politics and into leadership position those that see this as an important issue.

Roberto Ballarini, chair of the University of Minnesota civil engineering department, will expand on his views, and he promises lots of pictures in a free public lecture at 7 p.m. in the Mayo Memorial Auditorium at the U's Minneapolis Campus.