A Wake-Up Call From Italy

The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, Italy, was a sudden thing. One moment, a bridge; the next moment, no bridge. One moment, cars were rolling peacefully across the motorway structure in the daily routine; the next moment, chaos, rubble and the roiling clouds of dust which would soon reveal some 43 dead in the latest infrastructure failure to strike the West.

Reports of a “sudden” collapse were accurate, as far as they went. That is how the event appeared to occur. But disasters such as this do not happen overnight. They are years in the making. The structural faults and weaknesses, compounded by shocks, erosion and rust, take their toll only after long periods of neglect. Inspection lags, insufficient funding for repairs, official dithering, and that old standby of public harm — corruption — are the slow-acting culprits behind the “sudden” collapse.

Indeed, the search for blame in Italy commenced almost simultaneously with the search for victims.

It turned out that the bridge had known problems. In fact, some of those problems were being attended to at the time of the disaster last Tuesday, even as a repair team was at work shoring up its foundations.

An engineering assessment last February determined that corrosion of the metal cables supporting the bridge had reduced its strength by 20 percent. The Italian newspaper Espresso said that this alone would not account for the collapse, but given other “known defects of the Morandi Bridge, it should have merited swifter, more decisive action.”

Yet, the paper noted, “neither the ministry, nor the highway company ever considered it necessary to limit traffic, divert heavy trucks, reduce the roadway from two to one lanes or reduce the speed,” precautions that could have mitigated — if not prevented — the fatal event.

Former transport minister Graziano Delrio denied responsibility, telling a news conference that “no one ever signalled the necessity of limiting traffic” on the bridge.

Giovanni Castelluci, the head of Autostrade per l’Italia, which is in charge of the bridge’s maintenance, claimed that inspections carried out prior to the collapse found the bridge in good condition. Just the same, he gave his support to a formal inquiry, calling it “the first priority.”

Whether these denials will stand the test of investigative scrutiny remains to be seen. Expresso contended unequivocally that “everyone was well aware of the situation on that bridge.”

Indeed, the policy at this point seems to be guilty until proven innocent. In the face of public outrage, the Italian government leapt into action, initiating legal proceedings against Autostrade to strip the company of its contracts.

Autostrade head Giovanni Castelluci promised millions of euros for victims’ families, plus funding for the relocation of local residents who had to be moved due to the threat of further collapse of what remains standing at Morandi.

As for the future of Italy’s infrastructure, there were official promises that companies which were granted concessions would be required to invest a healthier chunk of their profits in maintenance and repair.

As for the future of infrastructure in other countries, the Italian experience cannot be waved away as unfortunate but far enough from home to be safely ignored. The same problems plague the public works of the rest of Europe and here in the United States as well. These slow-acting culprits are ready to strike suddenly in a long list of places.

In its most recent report, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the national infrastructure alarmingly low grades for fitness: a D+ overall for America’s bridges, roads, dams and power grids.

Calls for a trillion-dollar infrastructure program may sound generous, but they’re dwarfed by the ASCE estimate that the country would have to invest $4.59 trillion by 2025 to raise its grade to “an adequate B-,” which translates to about $2 trillion higher than current funding levels. (New York and New Jersey received grades of D and D+ respectively.)

In the 2016 presidential campaign, the one issue uniting Republicans and Democrats was infrastructure. Yet, despite the election-year enthusiasm for a spending program that would provide badly-needed upgrades and a major economic stimulus, the national overhaul languishes, a great notion but falling somewhere short of becoming a reality.

The price tag for the national fix has Washington stymied. The Trump administration has reportedly been eyeing a federal gas tax hike to help pay for a proposed $1.5-trillion infrastructure upgrade, while Senate Democrats have been murmuring about repeal of some tax cuts approved in December. Republicans aren’t exactly standing in line to voice support for higher gas taxes either.

Reuters quoted Congressional aides saying recently that passage of an infrastructure package would probably have to wait for November elections and “a glut of issues on the calendar.” Pragmatics snatch infrastructure from the arms of urgency.

In the meantime, whatever may impede federal action, this does not exempt the states from moving forward in this matter. More than 80 percent of local streets are ineligible for federal funding anyway. States and cities cannot and should not wait for Washington.

It is said that in democracies expensive solutions to major problems are only found and implemented after some disaster or emergency. Let the Morandi bridge collapse be a sufficient wake-up call for Italy, the United States and all the other countries where aging infrastructure threatens the public safety.

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