All Fall Down?

After Minneapolis’s I-35W bridge—only 40 years old!—collapsed on Wednesday, the prospect of taking a cab across the 124-year-old Brooklyn Bridge suddenly felt adventuresome (an impression not helped by scary tabloid headlines declaring NYC’S SPANS CRUMBLING). This city’s infrastructure, like that steam pipe that exploded in July, is simply old. The newest of the big East River bridges opened in 1909. And although we don’t know exactly what caused the catastrophe in Minneapolis—metal fatigue, ill-planned repairs, wintry wear and tear, and vibration from nearby trains have all been preliminarily blamed—we have a pretty clear understanding of what’s wrong here. We are still scrambling to clean up from decades of a policy known as “deferred maintenance,” the practice of skipping a paint job or road resurfacing when budgets are tight.

The thing is, deferred maintenance works, for a while. New York spent the sixties and seventies essentially borrowing against its future. That future is our present, and the bill has come due. About ten years ago, I was asking a city engineer about the Manhattan Bridge, and he said, “You know what holds that thing up? Memory.

Things are, admittedly, getting better. Tons of steel have been replaced in the Manhattan Bridge, stiffening it against the stress and warp of subway trains. The Queensboro is near the end of a $167 million rehab. The city is spending $2 billion on capital reconstruction of bridges in the next two years, after spending $3 billion in the previous eight. The Port Authority is spending another $1.7 billion. Our current prosperity may save us yet.

But even as problems are addressed, the rot keeps pace. There are 787 bridges in New York, and a structure fixed ten years ago, then ignored in favor of more-pressing concerns, can quickly become a problem again. Last year, city inspectors rated the Brooklyn Bridge’s approaches “poor,” and they are scheduled for repair in 2010. (“Poor,” despite the tabloid headlines, is different from “unsafe.”) The elevated Gowanus Expressway, begun in 1939, has nets slung under the roadway to catch the bits of concrete it sheds. Or consider the Willis Avenue Bridge, completed in 1901 over the Harlem River. A 1999 study noted “structural and seismic deficiencies,” calling for its replacement. Construction will likely start this year, and the ribbon will be cut around 2010. Until then, “we’re making it as safe as we can,” says DOT first deputy commissioner Lori Ardito. Till then, enjoy your commute, folks.

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All Fall Down?