Freedomnomics

Article published Friday, September 7, 2007, at New York Post.

FALLING BRIDGES:
THE NATION DOESN'T FACE A CRISIS

By John R. Lott, Jr. and Maxim C. Lott

John R. Lott, Jr. and Maxim C. Lott*

CONGRESS this week held the first nationwide hearings in the wake of the deadly Minnesota bridge collapse, and most Americans seem to think we need to spend much more to fix what The New York Times calls our "crumbling bridge system." Even in advance of this week’s hearings on the issue, House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN) said: "If you are not prepared to invest an additional five cents in bridge reconstruction and road reconstruction, God help you."

In fact, our nation’s bridge system is far from crumbling — the number deemed "structurally deficient" has fallen every year since 1990, dropping by a total of almost 50 percent.

And fewer bridges are being listed as deficient for a simple reason: Real spending on maintenance is higher now than in any previous decade.

The I-35W bridge collapse was a heartrending tragedy, but emotions shouldn’t drown out reality in the debate about what to do.

Much reporting has focused on loaded terms such as "structurally deficient" bridges, with papers across the country publishing lists of all such bridges in their area. But the term simply flags a need for regular inspections and repairs or upgrades. As the United States Department of Transportation notes in its 2006 report of bridge conditions, "The fact that a bridge is ‘deficient’ does not immediately imply that it is likely to collapse or that it is unsafe."

By any measure, even "structurally deficient" bridges" are extremely safe.

The most comprehensive database of U.S. bridge collapses comes from the New York State Department of Transportation. Of the 1,500 U.S. bridge collapses from 1966 to 2005, some 400 were the result of collisions, overloading or fires — problems maintenance is unlikely to prevent.

The New York DOT estimates that fewer than 1,100 collapses were caused by poor construction, materials, age, wear or other "miscellaneous" factors. In fact, 80 percent of those collapses were caused by "scouring" — the removal of sediment from the water around the bridge’s pillars.

Those 1,100 collapses work out to 25 a year. Since the United States holds nearly 600,000 bridges; in the United States, the odds of any given bridge falling are only about one 240th of 1 percent. (Even if the collapsed bridges were all among the 72,264 deemed "structurally deficient," the odds rise only to less than a 30th of 1 percent.)

Every disaster brings a rush to judgment and a desire to pour money into the problem. Now New York’s Sens. Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton are both calling for drastic increases in spending on bridge maintenance.

It would be nice if politicians could for once take a step back and carefully look at where spending more actually makes sense.

*John Lott is a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland; his latest book is "Freedomnomics." Maxim Lott is a student at the College of William & Mary.

Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Home

Johnlott.org (description of book, downloadable data sets, and discussions of previous controversies)

Academic papers:

Social Science Research Network

Book Reviews:

For a list of book reviews on The Bias Against Guns, click here.

---------------------------------
List of my Op-eds
---------------------------------

Posts by topic

Appalachian law school attack

Baghdad murder rate

Arming Pilots

Fraudulent website pretending to be run by me

The Merced Pitchfork Killings and Vin Suprynowicz's quote

Ayres and Donohue

Stanford Law Review

Mother Jones article

Links

Craig Newmark

Eric Rasmusen

William Sjostrom

Dr. T's EconLinks.com

Interview with National Review Online

Lyonette Louis-Jacques's page on Firearms Regulation Worldwide

The End of Myth: An Interview with Dr. John Lott

Cold Comfort, Economist John Lott discusses the benefits of guns--and the hazards of pointing them out.

An interview with John R. Lott, Jr. author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws

Some data not found at www.johnlott.org:

Updated Media Analysis of Appalachian Law School Attack

Since the first news search was done additional news stories have been added to Nexis:

There are thus now 218 unique stories, and a total of 294 stories counting duplicates (the stories in yellow were duplicates): Excel file for general overview and specific stories. Explicit mentions of defensive gun use increase from 2 to 3 now.

Journal of Legal Studies paper on spoiled ballots during the 2000 Presidential Election

Data set from USA Today, STATA 7.0 data set

"Do" File for some of the basic regressions from the paper