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D.J. Tice and motivated reasoning on collapsed bridges

by Eric Ferguson on May 27, 2015

After reading Star Tribune columnist D.J. Tice’s column on the collapse of the 35W bridge it’s apparent he gets the concept of motivated reasoning, but not to the point of recognizing when he’s engaging in it. He takes one fact, that the gusset plates were built too thin, and weaves a whole narrative of an unavoidable accident that absolves the Pawlenty administration, were it true. His convenient cherrypicking of facts ignores the inconvenient fact that bridge inspectors had warned of potential failure of fracture critical components, and recommended structural work to include the gussets.
 
From the MPR link:
 

The recommendation made in the November 2006 report was rejected, but one expert in the sound-based monitoring technology said even the suggestion that so-called “fracture critical” sections of the bridge were susceptible for cracking should have sent up a warning flare.
 
“For somebody to be looking for cracks to initiate in a fracture critical member begs the question, why?” said John Duke, a professor of engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech who’s researched acoustic emission monitoring.
 

“When a fracture critical member is discovered to have a crack, that bridge should have been shut down yesterday,” he said.

It may not have been certain that such work would have found and fixed the gusset issue, but it was at least likely, and doing the work definitely would have made it impossible to blame the collapse on lack of maintenance. However, the decision was to go cheap and just resurface. After all, proper repairs would have cost more money, and nothing was more important than avoiding the tax increase that would be unavoidable if we were to really fix our infrastructure.
 
Even after Minnesotans looked at our roads and bridges and realized deferred maintenance had resulted in a deteriorated condition, Tim Pawlenty was so determined to please the taxophobic poobahs of the Republican Party that he vetoed a small and insufficient gas tax increase. It was passed over his veto by legislative supermajorities that included some brave Republican legislators who paid a high price for defying the anti-tax crowd that thinks infrastructure is free.
 
I wonder if Tice is warming up to argue that a thin gusset on the 35W bridge proves we don’t really need to raise the gas tax to fix our roads and bridges. Would we rather pay a little more for gas, or always wonder if the “fracture critical” parts were found and fixed? Or maybe it’s just normal that a Republican wants to help politicians of his party who are still dodging responsibility for the bridge. I’m willing to grant that 100% avoidance of all screw-ups is impossible, or at least so close to impossible as to be unreasonable. The real question then is the willingness to figure out how you screwed up, and Republicans, apparently, are nowhere near such willingness. Maybe that’s why they want to repeat the mistake, deferring infrastructure repairs to avoid a tax increase. Call it the fingers-crossed approach to maintaining old infrastructure.
 
Sure, we don’t have to raise taxes, because we have another option. We can just let our roads and bridges keep rotting; not a great option, but yes, an option.

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