Long-range planning plays role in avoiding catastrophe

Long-range planning plays role in avoiding catastrophe

The horror is unimaginable.

The March 16 collapse of the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University was one of the darkest moments in recent memory for so many, including the engineering community. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and everyone connected to the tragedy.

Specific answers to the immediate questions of why, how and who’s to blame are unlikely to come soon, if they come at all. But that doesn’t mean we can’t examine broader issues at play.

Many have pointed to the way it was put in place. The technique known as Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC, sounds experimental — build a bridge off-site and use special vehicles to haul them into place — but it’s been going on for years as a means to limit traffic disruption. A Federal Highway Administration presentation cited in a piece on Wired.com mentions that ABC was used for more than 800 federally funded bridges between 2010 and June 2012 alone.

Others have wondered about the decision to build the bridge’s main concrete segment over a busy road before building its main support tower. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating why the road stayed open while workers adjusted the tension in two rods threaded through diagonal trusses on the north side of the bridge — work that was going on when the bridge collapsed.

But maybe the more important question is why the bridge and the road were there in the first place.

The impetus for bridge construction was, in essence, the growth of the university and the growth of the road. More and more students were having to cross more and more lanes and dodge more and more cars. The idea was to take the students out of harm’s way, not put them into it.

That’s hard to do for a student population that’s grown as rapidly as FIU’s has. Founded in 1965, its student body has stunningly become the fourth-largest in the U.S. The 55,000 FIU students are more than the number at the University of Florida and just behind long-established schools Ohio State and Texas A&M.

The largest student body in the U.S. belongs to the University of Central Florida, which is just two years older than FIU, and it underscores a key point: Growth all around Florida in the past half-century has been enormous. And it has perhaps been much too fast.

Let it not go unnoticed that the road the bridge was placed atop is part of U.S. 41. Southwest Florida is growing quickly, too.

We have to plan ahead and resist the temptation to rush. The stakes are incredibly high, as we saw this month. Growth and change may be inevitable, but the worst of the problems associated with them are not.

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