A bridge in Paulsboro, New Jersey collapsed Friday morning, derailing a train carrying highly flammable and carcinogenic vinyl chloride into Mantua Creek. The most recent reports say at least 28 people are having trouble breathing from the spill’s vapors and residents are being evacuated. Local schools are in lockdown.
This is the second time in four years that this bridge has collapsed. In 2009, the bridge buckled and plunged several coal cars into the creek. The bridge has certainly weathered a lot of wear and tear since it was built in 1873. Residents were not surprised last time it collapsed:
Gary Stevenson, a former Paulsboro fire chief whose two-year-old house is a matter of yards from the buckled bridge, said he has become accustomed to a “boom, boom, boom” noise as trains cross the span. “The exact section where they are at,” Stevenson said, pointing to Conrail workers surveying the damage. “Boom, boom. The exact section.” Conrail crews, “are there twice a week” as of late, Stevenson said. The bridge with an iron A frame dates to 1873 two years older than his grandmother’s house on whose ground Stevenson built his residence. … [Mayor John] Burzichelli observed “things could have been a lot worse.” No rail cars overturned. Burzichelli noted the affected cars were carrying coal not hazardous liquids.
Even if the Mantua Creek bridge is successfully repaired after this latest disaster, there are thousands of similar “time bomb” bridges around the country ready to collapse at any moment. The average American bridge is now 43 years old — and a 2008 Department of Transportation survey determined that 72,868 are “structurally deficient,” while 89,024 are “functionally obsolete.”
Despite the urgency of this crisis, US spending on infrastructure is projected to fall short by $139 billion or more over the next decade. Meanwhile, Republicans have pushed for a devastating cut of $871 billion in infrastructure investment.
Paulsboro Mayor Burzichelli apparently reached out to Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) for expedited repairs to the Mantua Creek bridge in 2009. Lautenberg introduced a bill in 2011 to encourage private investment in infrastructure and bolster federal funding. The bill, unfortunately, went nowhere.
As Paulsboro struggles to clean up this most recent mess, it’s worth remembering that infrastructure investment is not only desperately needed, but would also provide a huge boost to the economy. A new study found that every dollar invested in infrastructure has a return for state economies of at least $2. The effects are even more pronounced during an economic downturn.