A Bridge Too Far Gone: Why America's Infrastructure is Broken and How We Can Fix It (Without Crushing Taxpayers)

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As the Minneapolis bridge collapse proved, we need to fix our nation's infrastructure. And yes, it's going to cost us -- but the sky is not the limit. Construction attorney Barry B. LePatner says we must conserve tax dollars even as we work to prevent future disasters.

After the tragedy in Minneapolis, few of us will drive over a bridge anytime soon without feeling at least a twinge of anxiety. It happened there so it could happen here, one reasons. But how in such a high-tech age could a disaster like this even occur? We send shuttles into space but we can't build a bridge that holds up? And it's only natural that the next, knee-jerk thought is along the lines of No cost is too high -- we need to fix our nation's infrastructure and we need to do it now.

Barry B. LePatner, co-author of Structural & Foundation Failures (McGraw Hill, 1982 co-authored with Sidney M. Johnson, P.E.) and author of the forthcoming Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets: How to Fix America's Trillion-Dollar Construction Industry (The University of Chicago Press, October 2007, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47267-6, ISBN-10: 0-226-47267-1, $25.00), says it's time to step back and think calmly and rationally. A construction attorney with 30 years of experience and an advocate for industry reform, he is in the perfect position to understand why the Interstate 35 West bridge may have collapsed, what our nation must do to prevent more such disasters in the future -- and why throwing loads of cash at the problem is not the answer.

While he insists he isn't trying to diagnose the Minneapolis problem in particular, LePatner says structural failures are always the result of one or a combination of four factors: improper design, improper construction, defective materials incorporated into the structure, or design loads being exceeded.

"Many of America's big bridges were built around the turn of the century," he says. "These structures simply weren't designed to last a hundred years or more without major renovations."

The biggest problem has nothing to do with engineering -- and everything to do with politics. To put it bluntly, politicians don't get votes for refurbishing infrastructure.

"For decades our nation has closed its eyes to reams of engineering analysis and reports that have highlighted the deteriorating nature of our infrastructure and the costs of remediation," LePatner warns. "Every politician has received these reports. Most push them aside for a successor to handle, and we've just seen an example of what can happen."

Estimates vary on how much remediation of America's infrastructure is needed, but most experts agree the cost is well into the hundreds of billions.

So what needs to happen now to prevent other Minneapolis-caliber disasters from occurring in the future? LePatner offers the following suggestions:

  • Establish a standardized nationwide system for categorizing the remediation needs of America's infrastructure. Right now reporting is subjective. Different engineers categorize structural problems differently, often for political reasons. For example, in a situation where a decision maker knows money for remediation is not available, he may "dumb down" a report so that action will be deferred. The upshot is that the engineer reporting on Bridge A might write it up as being in dire need of repairs because of early signs of corrosion. Meanwhile, Bridge B -- which is in far worse shape -- might be put into a less urgent category.

"We need a nationwide standard for categorizing these remediation needs and for training inspection engineers," notes LePatner. "That way we can assure uniformity of infrastructure assessments, and serious problems in bridges, tunnels and highways will be more likely to be reported and dealt with."

  • Institute a national impetus for increasing the number of engineers and construction experts. America simply doesn't have the structural engineers it needs to perform the overwhelming amount of remediation that must be done.

"I would like to see a national effort aimed at increasing the numbers of civil engineers and construction experts needed to address America's infrastructure problem," he says. "We need to tell our young people that construction is an exciting and noble career, and strengthen those areas of our school system accordingly."

  • Ensure that tax dollars directed toward construction projects are spent wisely. According to LePatner, up to 50 percent of all money spent on the average construction project is wasted. This inefficiency is due in large part to the inherent flaws in our nation's $1.23 trillion construction industry.

The solution involves reforming the way public officials work with contractors. For instance, they must:

  • Insist on true fixed-price contracts. Standard contracts devised by members of the industry are generally insufficient as they a) fail to properly allocate risk among the parties and b) provide proven loopholes for contractors to make claims for additional costs.
  • Retain skilled, experienced onsite construction representatives with in-depth knowledge who can oversee not only quality but the true cost for the work.
  • Ensure that there are milestone dates for substantial completion and partial completion of remediation.
  • Purchase materials in bulk to leverage economies of scale.

"These suggestions can save our nation billions of dollars," he insists.

LePatner admits there may be those who criticize his willingness to raise the subject of money at a time when our national focus is on public safety. But he insists that the two are intertwined and inseparable.

"Money is always an issue," he says. "The taxpaying public does not have an endless ocean of cash for contractors to swim in. Don't tell a town it's going to cost $5 billion to replace a bridge and then say 'Oops, we spent $50 billion, our bad.' It's not just irresponsible, it's immoral -- and it's the reason critical remediation projects get pushed aside."

Barry B. LePatner, Esq. is recognized as one of the nation's leading construction lawyers. He is founder of one of the first boutique law firms primarily representing corporations, institutions, and real estate developers, and he is co-author of Structural and Foundation Failures.

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