One of my Favorite TV shows is Modern Marvels on the History Channel. And within that series, my favorite episodes are the "Engineering Disasters"--which look into the cause of some of the greatest technological mishaps in human history. It's amazing how nearly every one of them resulted from very minor mistakes in design or construction--fatal flaws that went unknown for years (and even decades) before a confluence of events led to disaster.
Take for example the Tacoma Narrows Bridge--which collapsed in 1940, just a few years after being built. This used to be the most famous bridge collapse in American history, thanks to the film footage of the bridge deck rocking and rolling and a man trying to walk away from his stranded vehicle on the span. It turned out that engineers never considered the forces that winds whipping through the river valley would have on the suspended bridge deck. "Galloping Gertie" as the bridge was known was doomed from the minute construction on it started.
Or consider what is now the most infamous bridge collapse in US history--the fall of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis back in 2007. 13 people were killed--145 were hurt--when most of the span fell into the Mississippi River. While that bridge was on a "watch list" due to its age and condition, the NTSB found that the actual cause of the collapse was that the gusset plates that held the bridge spans together had been too small and inadequate to handle the weight of the bridge. Ironicially, years of improvements to the bridge added to the problem as an extra two inches of concrete on the road deck created even greater weight and strain. The seeds for that disaster were sown on the engineering desk.
And then you had the partial collapse of the Hoan Bridge in Milwaukee in 2000. There a section of the bridge dropped suddenly--forcing the bridge to close for eight months. An investigation into that disaster found that welds had been improperly done during construction--and that a prolonged cold snap that winter had further weakened the joints. That little bit of human negligence nearly led to a huge disaster.
I will be thinking about those "Engineering Disasters" today when the inevitable press releases from Democratic lawmakers and Liberal special interest groups try blaming Governor Scott Walker and Republicans for the "dip" in Green Bay's Leo Frigo Bridge. Those press releases will claim that Walker and the GOP have "continued to ignore the state's infrastructure needs--and have instead used taxpayer money to benefit their rich and corporate donors". There will also be calls for another Federal stimulus package to complete more "shovel ready projects" like the Frigo Bridge (using only union contractors, or course)--instead of more tax cuts for the "1%". I'm sure an intern somewhere was sent to Wikipedia ten seconds into yesterday's DOT press conference to find out if Walker was the Milwaukee County Executive during the Hoan collapse (he was not).
As with the other bridge disasters I mention before, a lack of money spent and work done on the Frigo Bridge had nothing to do with the problems that manifested themselves yesterday. It is fairly clear that "Pier 22" is sinking into the ground--something that no inspection or maintenance program could have predicted or prevented. But that won't stop the partisan accusations of negligence--and the demands for more government spending. Just keep in mind that those arguments are as solid as the ground under "Pier 22".