Thursday, August 02, 2007

We Have To Stop Taking Our Infrastructure For Granted

Jeff Fecke at Shakespeare's Sister highlights this article in today's online edition of Popular Mechanics:

It will take time to determine why the Interstate 35 bridge collapsed, so tragically, during the height of a Minneapolis rush hour on Wednesday night. But investigators will likely find that two factors contributed to its failure: age and heavy use. Bridge 9340 was constructed in 1967, 11 years after the launch of the Eisenhower Interstate System. Until it plunged into the Mississippi River, it served as a transportation lifeline for the growing Twin Cities population, carrying across its 14 spans many of the SUVs, cars and trucks that accounted for the 42 percent rise in Minnesota’s vehicle traffic from 1990 to 2003.

Age and heavy use are by no means isolated conditions. According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation’s 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The nation’s bridges are being called upon to serve a population that has grown from 200 million to over 300 million since the time the first vehicles rolled across the I-35W bridge. Predictably that has translated into lots more cars. American commuters now spend 3.5 billion hours a year stuck in traffic, at a cost to the economy of $63.2 billion a year.

It is not just roads and bridges that are being stressed to the breaking point. Two weeks ago New Yorkers were scrambling for cover after a giant plume of 200-plus-degree steam and debris shot out of the street and into the air. The mayhem was caused by the explosion of a steam pipe, installed underground in 1924 to heat office buildings near Grand Central station. In January 2007, Kentuckians and Tennesseans woke up to the news that the water level of the largest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi would have to be dropped by 10 ft. as an emergency measure. The Army Corps of Engineers feared that if it didn’t immediately reduce the pressure on the 57-year-old Wolf Creek Dam, it might fail, sending a wall of water downstream that would inundate communities all along the Cumberland River, including downtown Nashville.

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span.

Jeff, who lives in the Minneapolis area, suggests that the problem is larger than Republican unwillingness to fund anything that isn't war-related, although that certainly does not help:
The truth is that we've been able to skate by on a slowly disintegrating infrastructure because it was built well in the first place. But the fact is that the infrastructure we've been given isn't going to last forever.

Aside from the human cost, the loss of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis will have an economic impact in the billions of dollars. The price tag for a new bridge alone starts at a quarter of a billion, and likely goes up from there. The cost of rerouting traffic off of one of the major arteries of the Minnesota highway system for years to come...that's incalculable right now.

It's tempting to attack the Republicans for this, and indeed, I will; the GOP in my state, led by Tim Pawlenty, has cheerfully put off funding roads and transit in order to avoid having to raise taxes. And obviously we've poured a ton of money into Iraq with little to show for it. But the truth is that the Democrats haven't been much better; they've been far too willing to meekly agree that taxes are always inherently evil, and to avoid fully-funding our nation's infrastructure because...well, I mean, who notices if a bridge is a little bit old?

Well, dozens of my fellow Minnesotans did yesterday. And more Americans will very soon unless we as a country seize the opportunity to begin building and expanding our infrastructure, so that we can bequeath to our grandchildren what our grandparents bequeathed to us.

This will mean political discussions in the wake of tragedy, something people rightly wish to avoid. But in this case, we can't. This is a political discussion by its very nature. It is a political decision to fund or not to fund our infrastructure. Asking what failed on 35W -- and ensuring it fails nowhere else -- is a vital good. And if fingers get pointed in the process, that's fine. Several people are dead today, and someone made a serious mistake with regard to the safety of the 35W Mississippi River Bridge. Those someones need to be held accountable. Good governance requires nothing less.

No comments: