When a bridge collapses


The other day a large bridge in Minneapolis just collapsed without any warning. Thankfully few died in the completely unexpected accident.

On having our evening news program interrupted with the breaking news of a bridge collapse, my first thought was to recall an old book – The Bridge of San Luis Rey – which meditated on why those five people who fell to their deaths when a rope bridge in Peru broke and collapsed were in the wrong place at the wrong time – or was it the right place for some in a cosmic scheme of justice?

I think nearly every one here immediately thought of the last time we had used that bridge and thanked our lucky stars it had not fallen then. The collapse was sobering here – more than an intimation of mortality and of the intense vulnerability in which we live but which we overlook each day as we go about our routines which confirm our sense of importance to life and our sense of place and security.

I guess the first thing I really noticed after the collapse was confirmation that we live in a global village. We saw our local broken bridge on CNN and BBC World News as did people in every country it seems. Emails of concern came in quickly from all over the world. The Tunku Abdul Aziz in Kuala Lumpur wrote me to add that, because of one bridge’s failure in Minnesota, the Malaysian Government was quickly inspecting 2,000 bridges in Malaysia. That is evidence of what the Buddhists might call “dependent co-arising” where karma spreads its consequences universally.

But the second related thought that came to me took a while to form. A bridge on a federal highway in the United States, one used by 140,000 vehicles a day, just should not collapse. What had gone wrong? What was the cause?

Immediately after the collapse investigative reporters began the hunt for an explanation and government officials began the process of saying “It was not my fault.”

What emerged here was a systems failure of responsible government. No one person was at fault, really it seems, yet the bridge failed all the same and so government in general had failed to provide for safe infrastructure.

So, perhaps we should ask what lies at the root of such failure of systems where people can’t be blamed but something is going wrong for the community? What can we do about it?

Oh, there had been many little warning signs over the years that not everything was all-right with the bridge: rust here; little cracks there; concerns over too much weigh being carried as the number of vehicles using the bridge grew year by year. The bridge had been designed in 1967 to carry 25,000 vehicles a day – in the era before great 18 wheeler trucks were commonplace. As the years went on, the bridge had to carry more and more weight each day. At what point in time could one say the carrying capacity of the span was being stretched to its design limit?

No one responsible for the bridge ever bit the bullet and said: “It is worn out. It is an old design. It needs to be replaced.”

The bridge was inspected often and routinely given middling ratings for safety – not really thoroughly safe but not so unsafe as to require rebuilding. A judgment call was made each time to defer a more critical assessment until the next inspection. Incrementalism carried the day – day after day.

As Emerson put it: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

A depreciating asset was left in place to depreciate some more. Modest repairs were made. No money was set aside in an reserve fund to be ready at hand when the time came to replace the worn out instrument of commerce. No charge to current use was made to off set the cost of depreciation. The tough decision on replacement was pushed off into the future, again and again; each year the buck was passed to yet another functionary.

And then, one day last week a tiny straw broke the camel’s already stressed and overburdened back. Some slight misalignment of steel beams, some minor stress from the heat or from the jackhammers being used by the resurfacing crews, or just a little extra motion wave from a passing truck – something no doubt quite small when all things are considered – triggered a small breakdown in one small part of the steel structural support structure and then, boom, the whole bridge collapsed.

But in the system of people tasked with oversight of the bridge no one had ever been eager to bell the cat; no one had wanted to make others uncomfortable by being the bearer of unwanted or untimely fiscal news. Risk aversion and careerism were in the driver’s seat watching out for public safety.

The lesson is an old one about bureaucracy – “as long as it doesn’t happen on my watch, I can’t be blamed – I did my duty and can’t be expected to think about the big picture – that’s for people above my pay grade.”

This state of mind is quite inconsistent with our expectations of principled government. Public office is a public trust – the mission of government is to think about the big picture, to bell the cat, to do what is necessary and right for the long term, to set money aside for the replacement of wasting assets.

A good trustee of the public welfare does not shirk the difficult or pass the buck to others while building up his or her personal retirement benefits.

Sometimes you have to say “Stop the train. We need to fix the brakes.”