Blame is still flying here in Minneapolis regarding the collapsed bridge. It must be SOMEBODY'S fault!
We still don't know enough to rule out incompetence or malice, or even indifference, of course. But we also don't know enough to point fingers. Yes, people made decisions along the way. Yes, some of those decisions -- had they gone the other way -- would have led to a different outcome. This is not the same thing as those people bearing guilt.
A few days ago a Star Tribune editorial praised Richard Braun, an engineer who was in 1982 the state's Transportation Commissioner in 1982, for closing a bridge that year in St. Paul: by himself, without funding, in place. Now, I don't know what kind of shape that bridge was in back then. Neither does the Strib, it seems, as they don't describe any structural findings, only the rusted steel plates that looked to Braun like a reason to shut down that bridge, and not any other bridge that year. Maybe it was in such bad shape that it really needed to be replaced, by executive fiat.
The story reveals more than that. It describes "opposition by business owners," skeptical questioning from the press, and a threatened lawsuit over the closing of that bridge. Does anyone doubt that the same would have happened had anyone closed the 35W bridge before it fell? And by the way, maybe it would have been nice in 1982 to use some funds to repaint the 35W bridge, which by that time had already gone fifteen years without a new coat and would wait sixteen more...
I write that not to criticize Mr. Braun. His decision might well have been correct. Frankly, I agree with the Star Tribune that it's a good idea to have engineers in the top spots where engineering expertise might matter --- and that's the point they are trying to make. But they do not make it well. The editorial depicts a man who put engineering judgment above politics and personal image (good), but they seem to be trying to depict a man who puts engineering judgment above money concerns, and every engineer knows that money concerns are engineering concerns and vice versa; they can't be separated.
They'll never get anywhere with this argument: that once upon a time, an engineer had the cojones to close a bridge without asking anyone else. It's only a half-decent argument if there wasn't a better way to spend the money he spent in 1982 closing and rebuilding that St. Paul bridge. Maybe we'll know the answer when we find out why the 35W bridge went down... and if it has anything to do with the thirty-one years (including 1982) the bridge went between its first coat of corrosion-protective paint and its second, I guess we will have part of that answer.
Thirteen people died when the bridge fell down. For the families of those people, anything would have been better. But... to say that bridges ought never to fail, as a societal calculation, isn't to put safety first; it's to put one kind of safety ahead of another. Engineering structures that are guaranteed never to fall down is impossible. Engineering and maintaining structures to have a 0.00001% chance of failure is not impossible... but it is very expensive and slow. More expensive than engineering and maintaining structures to have an 0.00005% chance of failure. And that's money that could be spent on improving other structures. MnDOT put money above safety! the critics are screaming. I have news for them: Money can buy safety.
Or it can buy you a new baseball stadium. It all depends on your priorities.
If thinking of money and safety is too fraught with emotion, try thinking about time. Before the collapse, the engineers estimated that rebuilding the 35W bridge would require rerouting traffic for 5 years -- that's on the busiest bridge in the state, connecting downtown and the university, within a few miles of several hospitals. Now: imagine the impact of five years of rerouted, slower traffic and major construction. I'm not thinking of your commute. I'm thinking of patients in ambulances, whose drivers are trying to get across the river to the hospitals; of the increased number of auto accidents on the temporarily repainted extra lanes on the detour; of the risk to employees in the work zones. In five years, who would have been dead instead instead?
We don't know.