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The Surprising Political Difficulty of Promoting Infrastructure Safety

For politicians, there are lots of incentives in favor of new construction projects but not much for maintenance. That can lead to deadly results, as the bridge collapse in Baltimore demonstrated.

Divers and engineers look for ways to remove wrecked parts of Key Bridge
Girders of the Francis Scott Key Bridge stick out of the water around the remaining structural support pier.
Jerry Jackson/TNS
Following the March 26 collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, many pressing questions remain about the tragedy that shocked a nation and took the lives of six people. This includes the most obvious: Could this accident have been avoided?

In the coming months, the National Transportation Safety Board will conduct an exhaustive technical investigation to determine the exact sequence of events that led to the ship’s power failure and the catastrophic ensuing collision with one of the main pillars that held up the Key Bridge. But the board’s final report will only tell part of the story. The full explanation involves a complex mixture of maritime and civil engineering — and politics.

When the Key Bridge was completed in 1977, it represented a momentous engineering achievement. Its main 1.6-mile span was the second longest continuous truss bridge in the United States. Prior to its collapse, an average of 30,000 vehicles crossed each day. Given the enormous volume of maritime cargo that passed beneath the Key Bridge every year, its span is notable for what it lacks — reinforced protective barriers around the main support columns, often called fenders.

Over the past half-century, the average size of cargo vessels crisscrossing the world’s oceans has swelled considerably. The ill-fated cargo ship Dali stretched 158 feet wide, 984 feet long and tipped the scales at 116,851 deadweight tons. Although it was moving at less than 11 miles an hour at the moment of impact, the Dali’s size exerted colossal force on the bridge. Had the bridge’s main pillars been guarded by heavy-duty fenders anchored deep in the bedrock of the bay, it’s likely, though not certain, that the Key Bridge would still be standing today.

But that’s only the civil engineering half of the story. Next, we have to consider the world of politics. Here’s where things get murkier. In a purely rational world, the decision to add protective fenders would boil down to a simple cost-benefit analysis. If the cost of economic disruption from a bridge collapse and harbor closure, multiplied by the likelihood of a rare catastrophic accident, is greater than the cost of adding protective fenders, the state’s department of transportation should add the fenders. Simply put, spending money proactively makes sense if it would be cheaper than the unlikely but appalling cost of a collapse.

Now to face an uncomfortable truth. Voters reward elected officials who promise new and exciting infrastructure projects, not bread-and-butter maintenance — and certainly not projects whose main purpose is to reduce the chances of a costly but unlikely accident. Infrastructure budgeting involves an inherent political tension because saying “yes” to the immense cost of building protective fenders would have meant saying “no” to other, seemingly more pressing transportation needs. After all, until the Dali crash, the Francis Scott Key Bridge had stood without major incident for 47 years.

The political backlash that comes from prioritizing maintenance and vulnerable infrastructure protection over new projects is not theoretical. For example, when the acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration published a memo in 2021 encouraging states to prioritize maintenance before embarking on expansion, 29 Republican members of the U.S. Senate — including the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — strongly objected to the memo and called for it to be rescinded.

If a memo could spark such fury, imagine what a stronger push for repair and protection could mean.

The Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law in 2021, represents one of the largest infrastructure investments in our nation’s history. But even this major injection of federal support for states and local communities cannot possibly satisfy every need. Politicians and engineers still need to make difficult choices involving real tradeoffs.

To avoid future catastrophes like the collision that destroyed the Key Bridge and took the lives of six construction workers, we have to reward elected officials for prioritizing repair and accident mitigation projects over the thing that is shiny and new — however exciting that shiny new project might sound.

Kevin DeGood is the director of infrastructure policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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