Friday, August 3, 2007

Infrastructure Matters

What happened Wednesday in Minneapolis was a wake-up call. Put bluntly, our infrastructure is going to hell in a hot-rod. Granted, I am a little more cognizant of that than many people are, because infrastructure considerations are a big part of mass casualty drills, and in my two decades in trauma services, I have participated in a lot of mass casualty drills and a couple of mass casualties.

When I say I worry about infrastructure, I mean I am somewhat obsessed with it. Let me put it this way – when I have nightmares, they star bridges and tunnels. And water supply. But mostly, bridges and tunnels.

Speaking of bridges – somewhere in this country a bridge fails every single week. It might be a wooden bridge over a creek on a gravel road in rural Missouri, five miles from the nearest blacktop, but if it cuts a family off from that blacktop road, it cuts them off from town – and doctors – and school, and supplies. This week, the bridge that failed got our attention, because it failed big-time, killing people and dumping scores of cars and commuters into the Mississippi freakin’ River in a major metropolitan area.

Four years ago another I-35 bridge failed, that one across the Missouri River in Kansas City. It didn’t catastrophically fail like the one in Minneapolis, but it was closed in 2003 for emergency repairs, reopened; then closed for several months in 2005 to do the repairs properly. Had the Paseo Bridge failure in January 2003 happened during rush hour, instead of in the middle of the night, what happened in Minneapolis might have been a tragic replay. We got lucky.

Last month, a steam-pipe in Manhattan blew. In August 2003, there was a northeast blackout.

In New Orleans, two years ago this month, levees failed and people died and a city was changed forever.

Infrastructure costs money. Bridges, tunnels, the electric grid, the levee system – all of these things cost money, and without the infrastructure, it all falls apart.

Infrastructure maintenance is funded by the tax base. When you gut the treasury and cut taxes, infrastructure suffers.

It is no longer my job to stress out about this stuff – now it’s a hobby, I guess, because I can’t just stop giving a shit, and I can’t unring the bell and forget the stuff I know.

It was fun sucking up tax cuts and encouraging the buying of jet skis and SUV’s and cardboard McMansions. But the party’s over. It is time to suck it up, tote the board and start paying taxes at a responsible rate.

Part of that reality we need to deal with is a crumbling infrastructure. Our interstate highway system is 50 years old. I-70 is in such disrepair from KC to St. Louis that some people say that MODOT should just cut their losses and build a whole new I-70 parallel to the one we currently refuse to drive on, it is in such sad shape; I'll take the train across the state, thanks just the same. The average interstate highway bridge was built in the 60's, when our cities were smaller, our population was lower, a lower percentage of that lower population owned cars, and most cargo still moved by train. In short - not only are the bridges 40-50 years old, but they were built for a different demographic and are not standing up at all well to the wear and tear of the traffic loads they bear.

Our infrastructure is so compromised right now, that we might actually be to the point of needing another WPA type effort, or face serious economic consequences as a result of our obstinance. If we don't get with the program and start dealing with these problems, we better get used to stories like the one from Minneapolis happening once or twice a year.

Meanwhile - if you are one of those people who is sustained by fear...go to ASCE.ORG and look at our infrastructure report card. You will find some stuff there to be by-god terrified about.

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