In the last few weeks, two major bridges were closed.
The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge was closed for a week when a beam came crashing down on the lower roadway. The beam was part of an emergency repair of the eastern part of the bridge, connecting Oakland to Yerba Buena Island. This part of the crossing is believed to be vulnerable to a large earthquake. It will be replaced by a concrete causeway and suspension bridge currently under construction, but the replacement span won’t be complete for a few more years. So the Bay area is vulnerable to an interruption of bridge service. The week-long closure caused massive traffic jams.
Another more serious bridge closure occurred at the border between New York and Vermont. In October, NY and Vermont DOTs closed the Champlain Bridge. This 80-year old structure is the only fixed crossing of Lake Champlain for hundreds of miles. A project was underway to either rehabilitate or replace the bridge. But inspectors found concrete damage in some of the piers much greater than what was expected or could be safely tolerated. A few weeks ago, the DOTs announced that it was not practical to attempt to repair the bridge. Instead, a controlled demolition was recommended, with construction of a replacement span. Therefore, in a best case scenario, the crossing will be out of service for many months if not years.
Although the area in Vermont and New York served by the Champlain Bridge is not densely populated, its closure imposes a great hardship on the region. Travel that was measured in minutes now takes hours. For the residents, not having the bridge drastically impacts their way of life, and not in a good way. Increased ferry service is being provided in the interim, but ferries cannot handle the volume of traffic or provide the ease and convenience for travel that a bridge can. This is true during the warmer months. During the winter, Lake Champlain is frozen, and then regular ferries can’t provide any service at all. Plans are underway to bring ice breakers to temporary ferry sites, in an attempt to provide service through the winter.
A closure of two major US bridges may be the tip of the deferred maintenance iceberg. Our forefathers well understood the connection between improved infrastructure and improved way of life. Documents from the 30’s proclaimed the dawn of a new era at the opening of the Champlain Bridge. Trips between the two shores that weren’t practical could then be made in minutes. But all of the energy and resources that went into building the infrastructure seems not to have been invested in maintaining it. When major bridges are no longer usable, our standard of living drops. Perhaps we in the U.S. have coasted too long on the assumption that our magnificent bridges and infrastructure would always be there for our use, without properly dealing with the need for maintenance.