Out On A Limb
October 26, 2010
The mind-boggling decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to cancel the largest infrastructure project in America has brought much-needed attention to a problem that is worsening by the day–infrastructure collapse. One commentator suggested that state and federal transportation agencies were facing a Solomonic choice: cut spending for pension programs, or neglect the needed repairs to roads, bridges, rail systems, and other vital pieces of the infrastructure that are wearing out. Talk about a “lose lose” situation.
The impressive infrastructure that everyone is talking about was constructed largely between the heyday of the Progressive Era after 1900, and the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Even during the darkest years of the Depression and the height of the war effort in Europe and the Pacific, America’s large infrastructure projects were maintained with wide public support.
That is not true today, and hasn’t been for decades. Not only has the country shrunk from building new systems such as the light rail and high-speed trains that are now common in Europe and Asia; it has also neglected needed repairs and upgrades in the fine but aging systems that our forefathers provided. As a new book by Barry LePatner, a New York attorney, points out, public officials are putting this country on a track to disaster that is unprecedented.
A recent piece on the NTSB findings about the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is startlingly clear about the political and social malaise that has prevented needed action on these issues. Rather than analyzing the myriad causes of the disaster, and identifying all of the pertinent agencies and actors who contributed to it, the “official” report blames the collapse on a single flaw: the thickness of a few gusset plates. Le Patner even points out that the engineering profession, already in the doldrums, will be hurt by the report’s conclusions, just when we need competent professionals the most. The same has been true of the status of architects, planners, construction companies, and all of the important players in a potential infrastructure renewal initiative.
The shocking thing about the NTSB report, and the boneheaded Christie decision, is that our politicians are bent on blaming others for their own failures to act in the interest of citizens. Our environment is in peril, and not just the natural one. We are out on a limb that is severely bent and ready to break. Rather than helping to support or repair it, our leaders are busy sawing it off.