Remembering the Mianus River Bridge Collapse, and its Lessons

On June 28, 1983, twenty-five years ago tomorrow, a section of the northbound side of an I-95 bridge spanning Connecticut’s Mianus River collapsed. Three people died in the tragedy, with another three injured (far more would have been at risk had the collapse occurred during the day rather than very early in the morning).

The disaster put a spotlight on how little attention Connecticut had paid to maintenance. At the time, ConnDOT had only 12 bridge inspectors to handle the state’s 3,600 highway bridges and 1,200 bridges on local roads (each two-person inspection team was assigned 400 bridges a year). An internal inquiry found that some inspectors had cut corners and even claimed to do inspections they had not performed in order to stay on schedule.

Connecticut’s response was appropriately dramatic. Within a year, ConnDOT had hired additional inspectors and inspection support staff, purchased additional equipment, and changed the bridge design process to include more inspector feedback. Connecticut’s elected officials voted to invest $5.5 billion into the state’s transportation infrastructure over 10 years, with striking results. Between 1986 and 1997, the percentage of the state’s bridges which were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete (according to the FHWA’s National Bridge Inventory) decreased from more than 60% to just over 28%.

Since 1997, however, bridge conditions have gradually worsened; the most recent National Bridge Inventory shows that 33.5% of Connecticut’s bridges are deficient. A 2007 Tri-State Campaign report, Reform: The Road Not Taken, revealed that ConnDOT is spending almost two-thirds of its highway and bridge capital budget on expansion, not maintenance.

Connecticut Bridge Conditions

The Mianus River collapse was an obvious lesson in the tragic consequences of deferring maintenance. State officials took it to heart, effectively responded to disaster, and overhauled the state’s priorities. Over the last decade, however, Connecticut’s commitment to maintenance has again shown signs of slipping. After the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, Gov. Rell and the state legislature passed $100 million in  bonds for state bridges, which is a good start (see MTR # 562). Mianus River is a lesson no one wants to relearn.

Images: Top left- Mianus River Bridge (image via WTNH TV). Bottom right – TSTC analysis of FHWA data.

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