EDITORIAL: Wrong jump

As China tries to elevate game, bridges collapse

Blog Entry September 06, 2012
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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A few years from now I just might be in a nursing home. Playing checkers. And losing badly.

A colleague of mine, who is much closer to hitting the assisted-living age than I, made the prediction as we were eating breakfast in a hotel in Anaheim. He just beat me in a phone-app game of Connect 4 before declaring future supremacy in the simple board game.

I’m not so sure I will visit him if indeed the unfortunate situation arises. The sight of him waving a cane in triumph just might drive me to spray him with the closest juice box. I might indeed be assisted out of that assisted-living facility.

Of course, moments after he demanded I king him, I beat him in Connect 4—in five moves.
China has been heavily engaged in a mission of connect the routes over the last decade, and in the beginning even those in the U.S. marveled at the brilliant moves that were being made. Well, I think more were envious of the vibrant cash that was being thrown around. China, however, was challenging the rest of the world in a game of economic checkers. It was prepared to leapfrog anyone that stood in its way, and to do that the proper board needed to be laid—one that consisted of mega highways and super bridges. For the first time in decades, the eyes were off the progress of the U.S. and fully on the prospects out East.

The rush to the throne of infrastructure supremacy has resulted in a rash of mistakes, errors and more recently bridge collapses. In late August, one of the longest spans in northern China—the eight-lane Yangmingtan Bridge in the city of Harbin—had a 330-ft section of a ramp suddenly become disconnected, killing three. It marked the sixth major bridge collapse since July 2011 in the great country and comes just months after it was completed.

Chinese officials were quick to make their move, blaming the disaster on overloaded trucks, the same excuse that was used on the other five fatal breaks.

If obese trucks were the reason behind the downed spans, China should have done something about it long before the Yangmingtan Bridge was opened to traffic. A national law should have been put into place, one prohibiting the excessive weight immediately.

We also could look at the other side of the cause, which very well could be faulty engineering and/or poor quality control during construction.

It is clear that China has put an express order on many of these infrastructure projects, and to meet the communist demands shortcuts just may have been executed. I do not know how else you could explain six major bridge collapses in a year, and I do not know how you explain to a trucker or average motorist in the country that it is OK to cross any of the spans still standing.

China needs to shut down every one of them at once and perform a massive inspection to assure public safety.

The Aizhai suspension bridge (see Mountain grown, p 30), located in the Hunan Province in central China, is expected to be opened this month and, I predict, should be safe from this checkered past. The construction and design have been extensive, highlighted by a unique anchoring system and the use of a rocky hill serving as part of one of the main towers.

Still, this one success story is not enough to break up the dark clouds that have led to a downpour of criticism.

China should have done more, plain and simple. Instead, it continues to sit back and watch this game of Russian roulette—and it’s losing badly. R&B

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