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July 01, 2007

"Bridge Inspections: The Unlearned Lessons of Mianus"

In June of 1983 a 100-foot section of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich collapsed. Three people were killed, three others injured and a major stretch of I-95 was left in turmoil for six months during reconstruction.

The engineering reasons for the collapse were simple… rust and corrosion. But the NTSB investigation of the collapse also blamed inadequate inspections by the CDOT.

In the early 1980’s the state was in financial difficulty. Budgets for state agencies were being cut… and so were corners. CDOT had only 12 inspectors on staff for more than 5000 bridges. Had Mianus been inspected more often and more diligently, perhaps that tragedy would have been averted.

Fast forward to 2007. State coffers are flush with cash. In fact, we have a surplus of more than a $900 million. And transportation is a top priority for Hartford. Or so we thought.

Just days ago, The Hartford Courant broke the news that the CDOT had cut back on bridge inspections over the past four years “to save money”. Rather than inspect all the state’s bridges every two years, those structures rated as “fair” would be inspected only every four years. Admittedly, bigger bridges (more than 100 feet in height) and those carrying heavy loads would still be looked at every two years, but does cutting back on inspecting our bridges make any sense?

Amazingly, this move to cut inspections had apparently been blessed by the Federal Highway Administration which, you’d think, would remember back to what happened in 1983.

All our neighboring states mandate inspections every two years, so why did CDOT start pinching pennies here? And more importantly, why didn’t anyone know?

Governor Rell certainly didn’t know, judging by her speedy response to the news accounts. (She’s immediately ordered CDOT to return to inspecting all bridges every two years.) Senator Donald DeFronzo (D – New Britain), co-chair of the legislature’s watchdog Transportation Committee says he didn’t know about the CDOT cutback until the Hartford Courant came calling. But the ranking member of the Transportation Committee, Rep. David Scribner (R – Brookfield) said he had been told of the plan a year ago and trusted CDOT’s decision.

Mind you, none of those lawmakers are civil engineers. Nor am I. But if the policy for reduced inspections made sense, CDOT sure didn’t try to convince anyone by disclosing the move publicly.

If CDOT felt that “saving money” was a greater priority than safety inspections on the highways, how about the trains? Has Metro-North’s recent spate of wires-down incidents been tied to cost savings? What about our decrepit stations? Where else have corners (and budgets) been cut?

The sins of the past still haunt us. The billions of dollars in bonding issued after the Mianus disaster are yet to be paid off: forty percent of CDOT’s annual budget pay debt service on those bonds.

Connecticut is one of the richest states in the union. Yet, we carry one of the highest per-capita debt loads. Our grand children will curse us when these bills come due… unless they decide to roll those debts over another generation or two. So much for “the land of steady habits”.

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JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 15 years. He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct

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