A bridge collapse & unsound public policy

A bridge collapse & unsound public policy

There are a pair of troubling dichotomies emerging in the early investigation into the Jan. 28 collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge over Frick Park. And neither serves public policy well.

The bridge’s catastrophic failure just before sunrise sent multiple vehicles and a Port Authority bus crashing down with the 50-year-old span.  There were 10 injuries, all non-life-threatening.

Had the collapse occurred later in the morning rush on a span that carries an estimated 14,000 vehicles daily, the story could have been far worse.

Indeed, the investigation – by an array of local, state and federal agencies – is in its infancy. But two early facts strike us as gravely problematic.

The first appears to be a disregard for, or an ignorance of, basic bridge engineering by its maintainers. To wit, media reports say that when steel cross members underneath the west end of the structure – “X-bracing” — were found to be badly deteriorated (and, later, useless), “helper” steel cables were installed to, supposedly, take over the bracing chores.

At some point later, those cables were found to be loose, instead of taut, a tautness required if they were somehow to help shore up the useless X-braces in any way. They later were tightened.

But an engineer connected with neither the inspection process nor the current investigation told the Post-Gazette that such cabling would be unorthodox, in the least, because it could not replicate the necessary load-bearing characteristics of the compromised/failed cross-bracing.

Clearly, the paramount public policy of public safety was compromised as well.

So, too, was, and continues to be, the sound public policy of transparency.

The collapse investigation has led to what published reports describe as a “lockdown” of the bridge’s overall inspection regimen over the years.

Additionally, there’s word that full details of such inspections – on the Fern Hollow Bridge and others nationwide – long have been limited to “summaries” for public consumption to satisfy federal concerns of possibly aiding and abetting terrorist acts by those looking to exploit infrastructure weaknesses.

So, in the process, we leave the traveling public as sitting ducks?

Again, this investigation is in its early stages. And as often is the case in such public infrastructure failures, while there might be one or two specific deficiencies that credibly can be blamed, it’s also quite likely that the cumulative effect of many missteps over many years led to the Fern Hollow Bridge collapse.

But the bottom line here is that limiting public access to these inspection reports – on a running basis and now — disserves the public interest, public safety and sound public policy.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).