GUEST COLUMN: A fatal lesson about infrastructure still unlearned

GUEST COLUMN: A fatal lesson about infrastructure still unlearned

By Zoe Coull, Special to Postmedia Network

At least 38 people have died due to the catastrophic and immediate collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. But this traumatic event is not surprising. For decades, the lack of long-term leadership vision has been undermining our infrastructure, our safety and our future economic success.

Bridge collapses like Morandi keep happening. Subsequent forensic investigations show a cocktail of factors are responsible for these failures but typically these tragic ‘accidents’ are preventable. Let’s be clear – this is not a ‘live with’ situation – bridges should never collapse.

Highway infrastructure does not age like fine wine. Our highways are already old and will age further. And they are being used more.

In the US, there are 614,387 bridges. 40% of these are past their original 50-year lifespans and continue to age. Over a quarter of them are deemed either structurally deficient or unsuitable for their current levels of traffic and loading (ASCE Infrastructure Report Card, 2017). 188 million trips are taken across a structurally deficient bridge every day.

In Canada, our aging transportation infrastructure challenges can be further exacerbated by our severe climates, vast land mass, high population density in urban centres and dependence on our highway network for trade.

Effective and affordable infrastructure is vital for the economic prosperity of our country. Our infrastructure needs to be looked after if it’s to last. Often, it is built to provide 100s of years of service. And yet for the past two decades in Canada we have spent only 20% of total investment budgets on maintaining our existing assets. The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card 2016 states that our ‘current reinvestment levels will result in a decline in the condition of bridges over time’. In the US the budget deficit for bridge rehabilitation is $123 billion. While we also need new construction, its ribbon-cutting photo opportunities are a bigger draw for politicians than routine maintenance.

There are technical solutions that already exist to help our structures. And they work. For example, we have been using cellphone technology to talk to monitoring and corrosion protection systems in bridges for almost two decades. So, if we have the technical solutions at our fingertips – why are we not implementing them? Are politicians actively listening to data-informed technical input? Are the long-term risks really being understood?

We currently don’t know the exact causes of the Morandi failure. But, as in the past, it is likely to be the consequence of a deadly combination of an aging structure plus a lack of long-term strategic leadership and investment.

Governments at all levels seem almost afraid to create and commit to a sustainable and secure long-term vision for our infrastructure, concentrating instead on easier opportunities to win votes. But we need a vision – one that is based on data-informed technical input, as well as economic and political considerations. We need a greater diversity of leaders at the table. People who are not going to flinch from the hard work needed to change our infrastructure culture.


Zoe Coull is a corrosion specialist and an alumna of Imperial College (London, UK) and the University of Toronto. She is the founder of ICE Dragon Corrosion Inc., a consultancy company that brings proactive corrosion management to a diverse range of international clients and industries.


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