Taiwan is no stranger to bridge collapses, but what makes Tuesday’s Nanfangao Bridge (南方澳橋) disaster even more disturbing is that the government is ordering the same kind of measures it has done after previous incidents, and yet little appears to have changed over the years in terms of bridge construction, inspection or maintenance.
While the cause of Tuesday’s collapse has yet to be determined, one has to wonder if the steps that have been ordered will prove any more effective than their predecessors.
The Public Construction Commission has been told to create a list of all bridges that are not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), identify potentially dangerous bridges and ensure that the needed reinforcement work is conducted.
Does that mean that there is still no central list of the nation’s more than 27,000 bridges, regardless of what agency or local government is responsible for them?
After all, following the 921 Earthquake in 1999 that damaged more than 100 major bridges, of which several had to be completely demolished, the ministry commissioned the National Central University’s bridge research center to conduct a nationwide survey.
Following the collapse of the Kaoping Bridge (高屏大橋) linking Pingtung County and what was then-Kaohsiung County on Aug. 28, 2000 (in the wake of Typhoon Bilis), the then-MOTC minister ordered another overall check on the status of bridges nationwide.
Yet more bridges have continued to fall.
On Sept. 14, 2008, Houfeng Bridge (后豐橋) in what was then Taichung County fell during Typhoon Sinlaku. In August the following year, Typhoon Morakot wrought massive destruction on the nation’s infrastructure, with at least 90 bridges collapsing and nine more requiring major repairs.
Particularly worrying at the time was that authorities said just three bridges in the then-Kaohsiung County — of the 14 major bridges on MOTC-administered roads that had fallen — had been listed as “dangerous” in a 2008 nationwide inspection, while several that had been deemed structurally sound also collapsed amid the floodwaters brought by the storm.
On Nov. 17, 2013, a 55m-long pedestrian suspension bridge at a water reservoir park in New Taipei City’s Sanchih District (三芝) fell. The bridge was only six years old, but heavy corrosion was found in the joints and the screw bolts in the bridge deck where the suspension cables snapped, which officials said was due to wind exposure and salt-laden rain blowing in from the sea.
Given Taiwan’s geographic location and its topography, one would think that the corrosive effects of sea air, along with riverbed erosion, earthquakes and typhoons, would all be major factors to be considered when it comes to bridge design and maintenance requirements — not just the cost.
However, repeated surveys over the years have highlighted another major problem — a shortage of qualified inspectors and maintenance crew, regardless of whether it is a ministry agency, local government bureau or other organization.
All too often, human error and inadequate maintenance have been cited as contributing factors in such disasters. It is long past time for such factors to be eliminated, insofar as possible.
It might also be time to place one central agency in charge of bridges nationwide, regardless of whose jurisdictions they are under now, and give that agency both the personnel and the money to enable it to conduct biannual inspections.
This would not completely eliminate the risk of another bridge collapse — nothing can — but it would be a major improvement on the system we have now.
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