What Brought Down the Bridge in Italy?

A deadly disaster has focused attention on the state of infrastructure built during the country’s postwar boom.

A firefighter helicopter flies above the destroyed Morandi bridge, where a truck pauses just before the section that broke apart.
The 50-year-old Morandi Bridge had been frequently repaired since it opened in 1967. (Stefano Rellandini / Reuters)

In December of 2016, the Genoese newspaper Il Seculo XIX sounded a familiar alarm about Italy’s infrastructure spending: Authorities were too focused on building new things, rather than paying for years of deferred maintenance on aging structures built in previous decades. The story focused in particular on the estimated 5,000 bridges in the region of Liguria. Many had been built in the 1950s and ’60s. And some of them were falling down.

Antonio Brencich, an engineering professor at the University of Genoa, told reporter Roberto Sculli that until the 1950s, the best bridges in Italy were built to support at least the weight of a U.S. Army Sherman tank; after that, the 60-ton M1 Abrams tank became the benchmark, or at least 2.5 times the weight of expected traffic. But after 10 to 20 years, structural deficiencies were likely to emerge; unless the ongoing maintenance on these bridges was properly funded and kept up, cracks would start to show.

Brencich singled out one bridge in particular—one critical to the local economy—that had grown immensely expensive to keep up. “We risk ending up like the Morandi Bridge, whose maintenance costs are so exorbitant that it’s cheaper to build a new one,” he said.

On late Tuesday morning, a 260-foot section of that suspension bridge collapsed onto the highway below during a severe storm. Rescue work continues, but 37 are believed dead, according to the New York Times, and dozens of others injured.

The national news agency ANSA said that a dozen or so vehicles may have been on that section of the bridge when it collapsed. An eerie video posted on Twitter by the Polizia di Stato, the national police force in charge of highway patrol, shows the bridge’s central beams tumbling through the dense fog. In it, an eyewitness can be heard repeatedly yelling “Oh God!” as the structure falls.

The country’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, quickly visited the scene of the collapse, one of the worst infrastructure-related disasters in Italy in recent years. The incident has sparked an urgent debate over the country’s ability to maintain its postwar infrastructure.

On Twitter, the national transport minister, Danilo Toninelli, called the accident an “enormous tragedy.” Afterwards, he told the state news agency RAI that every relevant state agency would be immediately instructed to examine the country’s infrastructure and assess its safety. “This is what Italy needs to do, now,” he reportedly said.

The disaster comes at an unpredictable time for the European nation, which, since 2010, has seen six different prime ministers and many years of economic stagnation. The current ruling coalition is made up of two populist parties that lack significant experience in governing—the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord. The rise of this coalition has sent shockwaves through Italy and across the EU.

The country’s clogged rule of law has been cited as a main deterrent to growth and public investment. Critics say that the constantly shifting power-baton in Parliament has made systematic planning all but impossible, and that trickles down to how infrastructure is funded and maintained. According to the European Commission, Italy ranks slightly lower than the EU average for its road infrastructure, placing 17th out of 28 countries.

Since taking office in June, the coalition government has called for a Trump-like palette of policies, including blanket tax cuts for corporations, a revisiting of regulations within the EU, demands to reduce migration, and Make-Italy-Great-Again-esque calls to boost infrastructure spending. Such messages resonate here in the nation that invented the superhighway. Ignited by Marshall Plan recovery funds, the postwar period known as the “Italian economic miracle” saw nearly two decades of strong growth and a vast transit- and highway-building boom that helped create the autostrade-ribboned modern Italy.

The bridge collapse on Tuesday will bring intense scrutiny to that infrastructure legacy. In the interview with RAI, Toninelli said that older structures would be prioritized.

The Morandi Bridge, or the Polcevera viaduct, opened to the public in 1967 after four years of construction. It carries travelers from the northern parts of Lombardy to the beaches of Liguria, cutting through the middle of of the industrial port city of Genoa to connect two major highways in the area, the A10 and the A7. The bridge’s size and height is visibly daunting. Stretching 3,615 feet, it towers some 148 feet over roads, railroad tracks, and the Torrente Polcevera, a slim stream.

The bridge’s construction used a mix of both reinforced and prestressed concrete, a technique that the bridge’s namesake, the engineer Riccardo Morandi, was known for; he built similar projects in Venezuela and Libya. But its striking design, while celebrated, proved increasingly expensive to keep up since the 1980s—a point that Brencich had alluded to years before, saying that the combination of the two different types made the structure uneven.

However, Italian authorities said on Tuesday that the bridge was inspected regularly, and its foundation was being restored at the time of the collapse. A restructuring project had also been funded in 2016.

With an official investigation into the cause of the collapse just beginning, both local and federal officials mentioned that a criminal inquiry would be opened into whether negligence was involved. Witnesses at the scene described serious storm conditions, and told reporters that lightning was seen in the area at the time of collapse. According to AccuWeather, the wind was gusting up to 30 to 40 miles per hour.

That may or may not have been a factor in the collapse. Wesley Cook, a structural engineer at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, told CityLab that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the situation in Genoa. “In a historical context, before 1950, wind was the number-one reason bridges collapsed,” he said. “That has shifted, though, through research and reporting.”

With decades-old structures, Cook said that regular maintenance is more critical than age itself: The condition of bridges built decades ago can swing between “good” and “poor.” Public agencies, he said, will try to keep it at that threshold, and not let it get any worse. (With the Minneapolis I-35W collapse in 2007, which killed 13 people, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled age out as a key factor. Investigators traced the failure of that 40-year-old bridge to a design flaw.) “Usually there’s a triggering event that causes the collapse,” Cook said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 40 years old or 140 years old, once you get out past 25 years.”

Cook, who authored a 2014 study on bridge failures nationwide, said that “many but not all” suspension bridges were more vulnerable than other bridge types. What really matters, he added, is whether or not the bridge is deemed “fracture critical”—these are defined as structures in which, among other things, the failure of a single element will bring on a catastrophic cascade. As in the recent pedestrian bridge failure in Miami and the I-35W disaster in Minneapolis, deadly collapses, Cook said, are often the culmination of multiple causes.

Two years ago, Genoese engineer Brencich made a similar point: “The collapse of a bridge,” he said, “is the result of a long series of errors.”

This piece appears courtesy of CityLab.