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While various government spokespersons have taken to the airwaves to calm the nerves of American drivers after the tragic collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis, the media are already examining bridge inspection and maintenance records bearing upon whether officials knew or should have known that the bridge was in poor condition, with one early report making some rather unsettling observations:

The I-35W bridge was given a low “sufficiency rating,” which varies from the best score of 100 down to 0. Its score was only 50. A score below 80 indicates that some rehabilitation may be needed, while a score of 50 or less shows that replacement may be in order. This measure includes safety elements (such as structural integrity), but also factors in elements such as the bridge’s size for its current traffic. Nationwide, few high-traffic bridges rated below below the Minneapolis bridge. Out of 104,348 heavily used structures, only 4,227, or 4 percent, scored below 50, or worse than the I-35W bridge.

It is unclear at this time whether the collapse of the bridge was forseeable, but the warning signs certainly seem to have been in place to alert officials of the potential for disaster. I am not familiar with the law in Minnesota, but in most states, like Wisconsin, accountability of the government to victims of such tragedies is often limited by discretionary immunity, damage caps, and notice deadlines. These legal protections are a trade off – they protect the taxpayer from footing the bill for government errors – but they leave the victims emptyhanded or nearly so. In a case like this though, one wonders whether the trade-off is an acceptable one.

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