The timing of a recent Reason Foundation policy study that grades the performance of state highway systems is almost prescient in light of the I-35 Minneapolis bridge collapse.

In its 16th Annual Report on the Performance of State Highway Systems (1984-2005), the Reason Foundation graded the states’ roadways in 12 categories – among them, bridge conditions, as well as traffic fatalities, congestion, and maintenance. On overall performance ratings, Minnesota ranked 13th in 2005, down one notch from its position in 2000. While it was among the states deemed to have the worst traffic congestion and maintenance disbursements per mile of responsibility, the state earned high marks for rural interstate condition, fatality rate, and ironically, for deficient bridges, where it ranked fifth for all states.

The obvious questions everyone is asking in response to the Minneapolis tragedy are “How did this happen?” and “How do we make sure it doesn’t happen elsewhere?” Just as 9/11 increased attention to our nation’s security and emergency response systems, we will undoubtedly see a major focus on the safety of America’s infrastructure – particularly bridges and overpasses.

In its 2005 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers states that 27.1 percent of the nation’s 590,750 bridges were “rated structurally deficient of functionally obsolete.” While that figure represents a slight decrease for the three-year period between 2000 and 2003, the ASCE also says that it would take more than $9 billion a year for the next 20 years “to eliminate all bridge deficiencies.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which promises to partner with the State of Minnesota to restore the fallen bridge, has posted a Fact Sheet summarizing the details of the collapse.According to the summary, the Minnesota Department of Transportation inspected the I-35 bridge as recently as this past May, and “no imminent dangers were observed.”

The West Virginia Division of Culture & History provides several accounts of the collapse of the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant in December of 1967, resulting in the death of 46 people. The Silver Bridge disaster, blamed on the failure of an eyebar pin, led to more stringent regulations for bridge construction and inspections, according to the Division documents.

Another round of increased focus on the safety of America’s bridges is inevitable in light of the I-35 collapse.