Monday, January 31, 2011

Throwing away our old toys in order to buy new ones

We've been advocating the termination of the California High-Speed Rail project for many reasons, primarily that it's unnecessary and it costs far too much.

In that case, what should we be 'investing' (Obama's term) in? Well, here's an article that says that the infrastructure in our state, in this case around Sacramento, is a mess, and getting worse to the point of dangerous.  And, the article does not talk about the levees surrounding the state capital, which are also on the edge of failure.

This article -- a well argued and documented paper, actually -- outlines what work needs to be done on the infrastructure, the bridges and highways, in and around Sacramento, the capital of California.  To remind you, this is the state that is eager to spend hundreds of billions on a high-speed train which, if you like irony, will run along several of the highways that are in such dreadful shape.

Why this is such an issue is that we are embedded in a zero-sum game.  There isn't enough funding for everything.  Indeed, there isn't enough funding for almost anything.  Draconian choices must be made.  Well, those choices are being made and being made very badly.

What this article illustrates is very scary. I'm not persuaded by the reassurances offered by CALTRANS personnel who, being bureaucrats, are obliged to first and foremost cover their own behinds, who tell us not to worry; everything is under their control.  I not relieved to hear that, are you?  

We have heard a great deal about how high-speed rail must be built because if it isn't, we will have to build many more lanes of highway and many more airport runways instead.  That is such malicious BS.  We will need highway expansion and airport capacity regardless of what other transit capabilities are on the drawing board.

But, this no-win Hobson's choice that the CHSRA loves to throw at us ignores the fact that we are ignoring the fact that our current infrastructure, upon which we depend, is in deplorable state and neglect.

Same argument, over and over. Should we be spending our far too limited state resources on a zippy new luxury train AT THE EXPENSE of not fixing what we have and must use? How dumb is that?

And, this article is about the area surrounding Sacramento.  What about the rest of California?  Apparently, we can't afford to fix anything and thus watch it crumble and fall down.  At the same time, we can lavish millions and billions on a shiny new toy for the well to do.  What sense does that make?

Wake up, California, and smell the roses!

A Towering Challenge
by Isaac Gonzalez
January 30, 2011 at 8:33AM
Bridge maintenance difficulties abundant in Sacramento

It’s no secret to the daily drivers in the Sacramento region that our local roads, freeways and even bridges have some less-than-perfect driving conditions. Any observant motorist can attest to this fact with their own experiences of avoiding potholes, deciphering sometimes illegible road markings, and bracing for strong bumps when crossing gaps between roadway segments.

What may surprise you, however, is the staggering amount of data freely available to the public which, when drawn together, paints a dire portrait for the future of Sacramento roads. In a nutshell: There are many existing problems we know about, not enough money to properly contain these problems in a timely fashion, and not nearly enough funding dedicated for proactive maintenance projects or to build the new infrastructure needed to replace functionally obsolete roads and bridges.


There is a fable which says if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The same metaphor could ring true for the public’s inability to react to significant changes that occur slowly over time.(1) It could even be said that the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse of 2007 is a terrific example of this idiom.

The warning signs were visible to those in charge of bridge maintenance and safety in Minnesota. In 1990 the federal government gave the I-35W bridge a rating of “structurally deficient,” mainly because of the significant amount of corrosion in its bearings. In 2001 the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department released a study highlighting the cracking in cross girders near the ends of the approach spans. Finally, in 2005 the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory database found signs of fatigue and brought up the possibility of the need to replace the bridge entirely.

Despite all of these warnings, on Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Officials were either unaware of or grossly unable to fully understand the fragility of the bridge. Despite its impending doom, at the time of the collapse there were over half a million pounds of construction supplies and equipment on the bridge for crews to replace lighting, concrete and guard rails.(2)


While the roads and bridges in the Sacramento region do not copy the “Truss Arch” design that proved faulty in Minnesota, they do share other commonalities. These include their age, heavy truck use and the same federal rating of being “structurally deficient” in many cases. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of road fatigue that observers were able to witness with their own eyes until recently was the off-ramp for the Eastbound “W X” Highway 50 to Highway 99 South.

For several years, large makeshift steel braces held up one section of roadway that was separating from the other. Drivers above the bracing could feel a large jolt as they drove over the crumbling “hinge.” This shift in the bridge span also produced a visible change in road elevation between sections. Last summer a construction bid was awarded to a private firm and work began to build a new concrete pylon to provide support to the off-ramp. Finally, near the end of 2010, work was completed and the temporary bracing was removed.(3)

The bump on the roadway still remains and, according to CalTrans, will be smoothed out sometime in the spring when warm weather conditions are more conductive to concrete work. But what of the dozen or so other local bridges that appear to share the same visible road-elevation changes between sections of roadway?


Most of the major elevated freeways built in the Downtown Sacramento area were built in the 1960s.(4) They are a mix of bridges and ramps that span over earth, rivers and, in some cases, over other roads. Most have flexible divisions which are designed to allow the road to give and take depending on mitigating factors such as heat, cold and rising tides. These divisions sometimes connect elevated sections back to sections of road that are on improvised mounds of earth. It is at these sections that the careful observer can see astonishing changes in roadway elevation.

The Highway 99 South bump was between two sections that were suspended in the air. In the sections highlighted in this article’s photographs, most of these elevation changes occur between sections that join bridge to earth. But just like the Highway 99 South off-ramp, these sections share the same alarming visible fatigue, and one can be easily left wondering how seriously and with what amount of urgency these problems are being given attention. To eliminate what would otherwise be axle-breaking bumps between road sections, maintenance crews have added more and more asphalt to the road to mitigate the change in road elevation. While this method treats the symptoms, it does little to cure the cause.

Seeking another opinion, I spoke with Sacramento native August Smarkel, a UC Berkeley civil engineering graduate with a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering. He emphasized the importance of following the planned scheduled maintenance as laid out by the original designers of our local roadways, as well as ongoing evaluation of existing condition of the roadway. He noted the difficulties in doing so while working with different gubernatorial administrations beholden to the real-world conditions of their day and complicated annual budgets.

Smarkel also pointed out the significance of proper oversight when dealing with private contractors. One scenario foreseen was a contractor concluding that if one project finished over budget, an incentive would be created to bring the next project under budget to compensate for lost profits. A less-than-ideal contractor may use substandard materials or a lower level of acceptable finish quality to cover previous job losses. The need for independent quality control and responsible project management with open lines of dialogue between designers and construction crews becomes paramount to ensure efficient roadway preservation.

While these may just be the opinions of local observers who lack the thorough knowledge of the day-to-day operations of the responsible governmental entities, it is still an inarguable fact that these bridges are only getting older every day. It is also safe to say that they will require extreme amounts of money and construction work over the next 10 years if they are to continue to be the main arteries that move people and commerce in the capital city.(5)


In the evening hours of Jan. 19, multiple lanes of Highway 99 South between 12th Avenue and Fruitridge Road were closed so that previously unscheduled roadwork could be done to resurface a bump on the freeway which extended across several bridge decks. According to CalTrans public relations officer Carol Herman, the work was only a temporary fix until more substantial repairs can be done during warmer weather in the upcoming months.

This construction work caused major congestion during the Jan. 20 morning commute, which I can attest to personally. I commute daily from 65th Street and Folsom Boulevard to Norwood via I-80, and pass under Highway 99 South at Highway 50. Normally at 6:45 a.m., the time at which I pass this interchange daily, traffic is fluid. On the morning of the 20th, as per the warnings I heard via multiple traffic reports, I witnessed for myself the parking lot that formed on the adjacent off-ramps. Traffic was unusually congested, until one passed the Highway 99 on-ramps. Within the scope of possibilities outlined in this article, it’s effortless to imagine a future where such inconveniences become a more common occurrence.


Being surrounded on two sides by rivers, Sacramento is hugely dependent on our roads and bridges for normal daily life to continue. If one or more of these bridges were ever forced to close entirely for major repair or due to their failure, business in the Sacramento region could slow to a crawl. Another troubling fact is the sheer amount of bridges in the Sacramento region: 472. Many of these bridges are in the rural areas and are important transportation routes critical for the production of agriculture. Every day, on average, over 22 million vehicles travel on them, and, of that, 1.8 million of them are heavy trucks. 

These heavy trucks are one of the most critical factors in pavement deterioration, as one fully loaded 80,000-pound truck causes as much wear as 10,000 automobiles. Compound that with the fact that heavy truck travel has grown at a 50 percent higher rate than autos in the last 20 years, and you have the recipe for the poor pavement conditions we’re dealing with presently.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) said as much in its report on road maintenance through 2035. They warn that gasoline taxes have failed to cover less than 20 percent of what the region needs for road maintenance and rehabilitation. Tax revenues have not kept pace with inflation, due in part to corporate fleet reductions and the improved fuel economy of newer vehicles. While the region currently spends over $250 million a year on road maintenance, SACOG estimates that figure will grow to over $1.2 billion a year in just 15 years. Rather than focusing on preventative maintenance, which in the long run is more cost effective and lengthens the life of the of the roadwork, most of the region’s transportation agencies elect to do “quick-and-dirty” deferred maintenance. This only applies “band-aids” to the symptoms of larger problems. In the long run, agencies spend more money and get less favorable results by going this route. In this current climate of reduced tax revenues and our national recession, budget conditions allow for little else but these “patch jobs.”(6)

According to the 2009 National Bridge Inventory, many of the bridges spanning our local waterways are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”(7) Even so, Sacramento County typically only budgets for one bridge repair project annually, and these projects average under $100,000.(8) The lack of proper maintenance eventually gets passed down to the motorist in the form of wear and tear on their vehicles. The average Sacramento motorist will pay an additional $609 annually in added vehicle operating costs due to poor roads. That is a number which is almost twice the average of the rest of the country, and the sixth highest average of regions with populations over 1 million nationwide.


For the past 84 years, the California State Department of Transportation, CalTrans, has been responsible for over 12,000 bridges. In that time, none of their bridges have collapsed due to neglect. Despite the fact that many bridges are well beyond their design service life, State Bridge Maintenance Engineer Dolores Valls is certain that CalTrans’ aggressive inspection and maintenance program is working in a manner that will allow the bridges to continue to serve the public reliably.

“As the transportation system ages, it will require increased attention, much like a patient reaching middle age needs more frequent visits to the doctor than a teenager to remain healthy,” Valls said via e-mail. “Making sure those structures, including the more than 400 state highway bridges in the greater Sacramento area, continue to provide safe and reliable service requires the ongoing support of the public and the full-time attention of a special unit of 200 trained engineering professionals.”

Even though Director Cindy McKim says that “the state of California’s economic difficulties only make our work more challenging,” CalTrans is confident in the safety and dependably of state bridges. She acknowledges that the current network of bridges is crucial to our economic prosperity, as billions of dollars of commerce depend on their existence. But recently when over $1 billion in funding appropriations were announced, less than $900,000 was allocated to the repair of an existing bridge.(9) A majority of funding is set to be used for the addition of more lanes on existing freeways, the purchasing of buses and light rail trains for local governments, and building traffic control systems to reduce congestion times. $65 million will be spent on parts of the Sacramento River Bridge, but only to add HOV, median and auxiliary lanes on the existing roadway. Hopefully some of that monies goes to ensuring that the “W X” can handle the added weight.


The items covered in this article are not the beginning or the end of the challenges facing the roads and bridges in the greater Sacramento area. The damaging effects of seismic activity, flooding, major accidents with chemical spills, and even the corrosive nature of some bird droppings also deserve a thorough investigation.(10) The continuing commitment of state and federal resources to maintain the ongoing use of our vital passages for commerce and transportation could prove to be the logistical nightmare of the next few decades. Combine the general public’s perceived lack of awareness to the existence of these problems and the current uncertain economic climate in the ongoing global recession, and one is left guessing how much of a priority this can be to those who responsibility it is to ensure proper funding for road safety and operations.

It is important to stress at this point that this information is not meant to sway the reader into blindly adopting one opinion about the current state of local bridges over another. The genesis of this article was simply daily observations by the author. These observations resulted in further research of publicly searchable databases and scrutiny of similar historical events.
It is the only hope of the author that upon the conclusion of reading this article the reader is motivated to do their own research and observation and to come to their own conclusions. If after proper scrutiny the consensus is that our bridges are in good working order and are being managed responsibly, then there is nothing to be concerned about and the motorists of Sacramento can draw comfort from the fact that their roads and bridges are safe.

But if the contrary is true, and it turns out our bridges deserve an immediate increase of funding and attention to fix or replace anything that may be an eminent danger to the public, one can only hope that this compilation of information begins the debate that prevents any incident which otherwise could cause economic and bodily harm.

(4) Images of America, Sacramento’s Midtown. Arcadia Publishing 2006
(7) Search results from
(*) Google Map Images used following Fair Use under the Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth. Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth Fair Use Policy:
Representatives from CalTrans were forthcoming with information when asked and very helpful in the framing of this article. I invite them to continue the discussion in the comments section below.