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U.S. INFRASTRUCTURE Could a bridge collapse do what legislation hasn’t?


The media frenzy and public outcry following the Minneapolis bridge collapse could push politicians to boost spending on infrastructure and, in particular, on bridges, several steel executives said. Any such moves could prove a boon to producers of plate, reinforcing bar, beams and structural shapes.

It takes about 25,000 to 30,000 tons of steel to build a very large bridge, said William B. Larson, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Irvine, Texas, mini-mill Commercial Metals Co. (CMC). Builders would need between 10,000 and 15,000 tons to construct a smaller bridge like the one in Minneapolis, while heavy repairs to an existing bridge would require about 5,000 to 10,000 tons. "That is substantial—and that's not talking about the highways that lead into them or anything else," he said.

Any state or federal funds would probably come with requirements that contractors buy from U.S. producers, Larson said. CMC could provide rebar for bridge decking and the highways that lead into them, he noted, but companies that produce beams or plate could see the biggest benefit.

Smaller bridges might use beams rolled from mills, but larger bridges often need beams bigger than mills can provide. Engineers generally build these massive beams and other support structures from plate.

"When the bridge market is active, it is a considerable user of plate products," Dan Miksta, vice president and general manager of steel products at Ipsco Inc., Lisle, Ill., said. Many expected that market to spike upward following the passage of the 2005 transportation bill, he said, but the boom didn't materialize, and the market has been only so-so in recent years.

But there is demand for new bridges and bridge repair and replacement, Miksta said. "I believe the potential is there, given the political reaction to what happened, for this to be a more active market. It's certainly nothing that would impact 2007 to any major degree, but beyond that I think it has potential, depending on how quickly this works through the political system."

The bridge market represents about 20 percent of Claymont Steel Holdings Inc.'s business, said Steve Lundmark, the Claymont, Del., plate producer's vice president of sales and marketing. And while the concrete and steel industries might vie for bridge projects, even concrete bridges use some plate steel.

The company had been expecting an increased emphasis on infrastructure, particularly on bridges, he said, and public attention could speed the process of releasing government money for some projects. Even so, the market won't explode overnight. "Just because a bridge needs to be repaired doesn't mean that there's a design and a plan for it," he said.

While infrastructure expansion and repair projects might take a long time to get off the ground, they could provide a long-term boost to business, Lundmark said. "If they really get into a program of fixing all these substandard bridges, it'll go on for several years."

Often, legislation is passed but spending doesn't occur, said Richard Teets, an executive vice president in charge of the steel shapes and building products division of Steel Dynamics Inc., Fort Wayne, Ind. But things might be different this time, he said. "You hate to think of capitalizing on a tragedy, but it happened, and politicians will all be sensitive. No one wants to be tagged with, 'It happened here, too'."

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