Historic Bridges Encyclopedia

Back to Articles PageHome: HistoricBridges.org

A Significant Threat To Historic Bridges: The History Channel

Commentary On The Upcoming Series Inspector America and Its Report on Historic Stillwater Lift Bridge in Stillwater, MN.

Don't let the name fool you: despite what you might think, the History Channel is now an enemy of historic bridges as it begins to wage war against them.

Timothy Galarnyk who is described as "an independent construction investigator in St. Paul" and who runs a risk management company will become the host of a new History Channel series called "Inspector America" which apparently was originally going to be called "America's Crumbling Infrastructure." The show begins at 10:00 PM April 17th. Read about it here. You can read Galarnyk's bio here. From the bio, it sounds like he is a respectful guy with a lot of experience and someone who knows what he is talking about. However his actions in visiting and "inspecting" the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge for one of the upcoming television episodes suggests he is either completely incompetent or is grossly distorting the facts for the sake of television drama and theatre.

Consider the National Bridge Inventory inspection ratings for the Stillwater Lift Bridge, gathered by NBIS Certified bridge inspectors who are under much greater scrutiny working in the post I-35W world, within the very state in which the I-35W collapse occurred. Do you think these certified inspectors would do anything other than rate this fracture critical truss bridge as worse than it really is? Here are the official 2009 ratings:
Deck condition rating: Very Good (8 out of 9)
Superstructure condition rating: Satisfactory (6 out of 9)
Substructure condition rating: Fair (5 out of 9)
Appraisal: Structurally deficient
Sufficiency rating: 32.8 (out of 100)

These ratings are not that bad. The important things to look at when assessing the structural integrity of the bridge is the condition ratings. The sufficiency rating is not useful in determining structure integrity, because the rating takes into account many other factors that have nothing to do with the physical condition of the bridge such as whether the bridge has enough lanes for the traffic volume, etc. The bridge condition ratings suggest the substructure needs rehabilitation and the superstructure could receive repairs or light rehabilitation. So what sort of coverage will this bridge get on the History Channel? According to a local news article the program "…will warn that the Stillwater Lift Bridge could collapse any time because of crumbling piers and corroding steel plates."

Timothy Galarnyk and Stillwater mayor Ken Harycki (who turns out to be quite radical and makes the problem worse) to "inspect" the bridge. "Inspect" is in quotes because normal NBIS inspectors do not consider walking under a bridge on the ice of a frozen river to be the traditional (or safe) way to inspect a fracture critical truss bridge. During this "inspection" Galarnyk concluded that the bridge is so dangerous that motorists should stay off the bridge and the bridge "shouldn't be open" He claims "he pushed his arm inside a pier" and could "reach through a corroded steel plate" He said the bridge is "is as bad as any he's seen in 30 years."

A week prior to this, certified NBIS inspectors from MnDOT inspected the bridge and found no issues that warranted bridge closure. Now, there is nothing wrong with being suspicious of a DOT inspection, but the idea that there would really be such broad disagreement as to the condition of a bridge is absurd. MnDOT conducts annual inspections of the bridge, and reviewing prior inspections actually reveals that the bridge has been in worse shape in previous years than it is today. Past repairs have resulted in this improvement. It seems fairly obvious that Galarnyk is reporting the bridge as being in worse condition than it really is. This is not to say that Galarnyk is incompetent or doesn't know how to inspect a bridge. It could be that the History Channel wants him to grossly exaggerate and distort the facts, making the bridge appear worse than it is, for the sake of improving ratings by making the show more exciting or suspenseful. Either way, the reality is that scaring the living daylights out of people is not beneficial to anybody, nor is condemning a bridge that has preservation and rehabilitation potential.

It all goes downhill from here. The television show hasn't even aired yet. After that "inspection" the mayor panicked. In an epic freakout, he tried (and failed) to get City Council to rename the bridge "Federal Government Lift Bridge" so that the city would not be blamed if the bridge collapsed. He also tried (and failed) to get City Council to add posted signage that reads "This unsafe crossing brought to you by your federal government at work. Cross at your own risk." He also said for good measure he wanted to add skulls and crossbones. All of this was reported in local news articles. The local newspapers showed a complete ignorance of NBI bridge ratings. They made a point of noting that the sufficiency rating of Stillwater Bridge is lower than the collapsed I-35W bridge as if that somehow means the Stillwater Bridge is in greater danger of collapse even though that has nothing to do with sufficiency rating.
Here are the two most prominent articles:

Although unrelated to this story, its also worth noting that this bridge is another victim of one of the dumbest laws in the world, the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The plan has been to bypass this bridge with a new bridge and to preserve the historic bridge for pedestrian use. Sounds like a great solution! But Scenic Rivers Act limits the number of bridge crossings a river can have. No exception is made for situations where a crossing is being added as part of a preservation project to bypass a historic bridge. Even though the official stated goals for the Scenic River Act is to protect and historic and cultural values of a designated river, the law will not allow a bypass because of the bridge crossing limit. There have been efforts to pass legislation to create an exemption for this law for the Stillwater Bridge. The reality is however that the law itself needs to be amended so that exception to this rule is automatic whenever any historic bridge's preservation hangs in the balance.

Based on what news there has been about Galarnyk and this show so far, this show appears to be nothing less than an unwarranted attack on historic bridges by a television channel supposedly devoted to history. An audience composed of people who have an appreciation for history will be subjected to scare tactics that leave them believing that historic bridges are dangerous, on the verge of collapse, and beyond repair and therefore must be demolished and replaced when in most cases nothing could be further from the truth. It will drive away the very people who might otherwise offer support for the preservation of historic bridges.

It really is most unfortunate that the History Channel has chosen to portray our nation's historic bridges as dangerous crossings that should be demolished and replaced by using exaggeration and scare tactics, presumable to raise show ratings. I suspect the original idea for this series was perhaps something more beneficial to the greater good, which may have been to raise awareness of how deferred maintenance and lack infrastructure funds are resulting in deterioration. This show might actually be interesting and beneficial if it instead were to focus on how maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure is the most cost-effective way in which to bring America's infrastructure back into good condition, while also preserving the history that this television channel is supposed to cherish.

Back To Top