When bridges stop bridging

Image author: Martina Vesuvio, published under CC BY 3.0 license, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ponte_Morandi_crollato2.png

I have a vague memory of an event, I was probably very young. It must have been a Sunday evening. The construction of a new bridge was near completion in a nearby town. The city council had allowed the population to "walk" on the bridge, the evening before its grand opening to car traffic. My father took us there, to witness that great event, and to be among those who could proudly say they crossed the bridge on foot on the car lanes, something we could most likely never do in the future.

Image author: Adqproductions, shared under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PONT_DUBUC.jpg

The old, truss bridge had been there since the 30's. It was being replaced because it could not accommodate the increasing traffic. Its central section could rotate to let ships pass, although that feature had rarely been used.

Image author: Chicoutimi, shared under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.   https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Pont_Sainte-Anne.jpg 

The bridge was a very important feature in the region - providing a link between 2 towns, it was even depicted on packs of local-made butter. In the 80’s, a wisely made photo mock up showing the bridge cut in half, published on the local newspaper on an April 1st, caused quite a stir in the region… The bridge was part of our community.

Before the first bridge was built, the river was quite an obstacle. Subject to tides up to 4 m (13 ft) high, with good current, it was not always possible to cross it safely... a ferry was used in the summer, and an ice bridge was made during the winter. While my grandparents have witnessed a time when there were no bridge, in my mind there has always been a bridge there.

Nowadays, whenever I cross that bridge, or any bridge for that matter, the difficulty of crossing a river does not even come to my mind. The obstacle is just a thing of the past – I just drive on it, as I would drive any other kilometer of road... I don’t realize how handy a bridge is, perhaps because most bridges fulfill their functions perfectly, probably over 99.999% of the time, and there is always a bridge to cross obstacles, wherever I want to go…

That's the thing with infrastructure - it is so well integrated with our lives, that we end up taking it for granted. We just assume it works 100% of the time. That is what infrastructure does - it just "works" and does what it is designed to do. We feel truly miserable when it does not (what can you do during a power failure?), but the vast majority of the time, it works just fine, and we kind of forget how important it is in our daily lives... and we may end up assuming those services are “due to us”. 

The disaster that occurred in Genoa last week was terrible. A huge piece of infrastructure failed, killing tens of people. Whether we drive on a bridge, or live underneath it, we don’t normally have to worry about whether it will hold. Infrastructure – such as bridges – is designed to withstand heavy weight, wind, rain, snow, and ice, and last decades. And it does it pretty well. 

Of course, infrastructure does not come for free – it is expensive to build, and must be carefully maintained to ensure continued and optimal operation. It is not due to us - it is rather a gift that we give ourselves as a society, to make our lives more comfortable & safer, to accommodate our growing population, and to act as a catalyst for the growth of our economy. Infrastructure is not just important – it is fundamental to the continued operation of our society…

I wish courage to all the families affected by that tragic event.  I wish I could find better words to offer them. For the rest of us, I hope that such a tragic event would give us pause to reflect on all the things we take for granted – including even infrastructure – and perhaps realize how important infrastructure is in our daily lives… and consider that we should treat it as part of the core fabric of our communities...