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Infrastructure questions raised in Montana following Baltimore bridge collapse

Baltimore Bridge
Posted at 7:50 AM, Mar 27, 2024

Questions regarding the nation's infrastructure loom following the Baltimore bridge collapse early Tuesday morning.

The Francis Scott Key bridge collapsed around 1 a.m. after a massive cargo ship lost power and drove into it. At this time, six are still missing from the accident and are now presumed dead.

While that incident happened thousands of miles away from Montana, it's raised big questions about infrastructure in the Treasure State. Yanling Leng is a chief bridge engineer for IMEG, an engineering firm based in Illinois that has several branches in Montana, and she said an incident of this magnitude reverberates across the country.

"When I read the news, I felt sad," Leng said in an online web call. "I also started thinking about what might have caused the accident."

Leng said that as an engineer who constantly works on bridge projects, these collapses always spark more questions.

"The bridges are supposed to be designed to be able to take into consideration this type of possibility," Leng said. "I was wondering if the bridge was adequately designed to take into account the happening of this kind of accident."

Leng said that while she isn't questioning the bridge's integrity, she believes the redundancies in place were likely outdated. The bridge is nearly 50 years old and was inspected last year, but Leng and other experts speculate it probably wasn't built to withstand a potential collision with a cargo ship. Redundancies are defined by the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) as "the quality of a bridge that enables it to perform its function in a damaged state."

Greg Benjamin, president and CEO for Stahly Engineering, which has designed dozens of bridges in Montana, says he wasn’t surprised to see the bridge collapse the way it did after it was hit by that huge cargo ship.

“That was a massive impact. You get a load like that the bridge was likely not designed for and you take out the entire foundation or substructure of a bridge like that and it would be anticipated that it would come down," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating whether there with deficiencies with the vessel or with the bridges structure and design--- or perhaps both.

“The one issue that I do expect they may find in this investigation is possibly that ships back in that era were not as big they are very similar to how the vehicles for a lot of bridges in Montana back in the 1950s were not as heavy, were not as big," Benajamin said.

Leng said in Montana, bridges need to be built to withstand all types of severe weather.

"I know in Montana they have a variety of weathers," Leng said. "It could be heavy snowfall or flood waters. They rarely happen, but when they happen they may cause a collapse or big accidents."

Just last summer near Reed Point, a railroad bridge collapsed, leaving several cars in Yellowstone River. That incident sparked conversation regarding the declining infrastructure in Montana.

An MTN investigation last August revealed that some 80 bridges around the state were deemed "structurally deficient" by the Federal Highway Administration.

"The risk of a failure due to extreme events is not very well controlled for the United States bridge population," Leng said.

It's a problem that Leng said needs to be a major focus, with the most recent example in our review mirror.

"Considering how important this bridge is, I think that they probably should have taken some measures to protect the bridge from ships crashing into it," Leng said.

Montana experts react to Baltimore bridge collapse