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Thread: Crumbling public infrastructure

  1. #1
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    Crumbling public infrastructure

    The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation's aging infrastructure a report card score of "D," and estimates the price tag for improving our roads, airports, dams, bridges and water systems at $1.6 trillion.

    Issues surrounding the state of public infrastructure struck very close to home for me and my colleagues at Minnesota Public Radio due to the collapse of I-35W. But the issue has been talked about but also ignored - for years.

    What are your experiences with aging local, state, or national infrastructure?

    I hope to see this issue discussed among those who deal with infrastructure daily planners, architects, inspectors, or concerned citizens here at Cyburbia.

    Big Dig tunnel failures, bridge collapses, flooded subways - are these sensationalized news stories or indicative of a profound problem in public infrastructure?

    Im looking forward to the discussion.

    Thanks,

    Lea Coon
    American Public Media/Minnesota Public Radio
    lcoon@americanpublicmedia.org

    American Public Media, which produces and distributes public radio programs such as Marketplace and Weekend America, is also looking for insights and observations into the state of public infrastructure in the United States for our on-going coverage of the issue. Do you have particular expertise in this area? Share your insights with us here: http://americanpublicmedia.org/pin/infrastructure

  2. #2
    Cyburbian b3nr's avatar
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    Saw an interesting piece on this report on the News just after the bridge collapsed. It is an intriguing situation.

    But how big a deal is it really? The situation is pretty similar in most developed countries and almost certainly better than the situation in developing countries. Although having a full on bridge collapse is quite an 'achievement'. Its astonishing it could get to this stage. Is this the infrastructure built during the great civil engineering binges of the 1930's and 60's coming of age?

    Creaking, ageing, infrastructure is something very familiar to me as someone who works in development in the UK, in many of the bigger cities the sewers are well over 100 years old, with parts built in the 1860s. Most of the railway network dates back to the 1800's some lines still in use built in the 1820's, with canals (mainly used for leisure only of course) in the 1700s. Parts of the London Underground were built in the 1860's. What can you do? Well in the undergrounds case it gets shut for 5 hours each night, whilst the company nail the bits that fell off that day back on.

  3. #3
    Super Moderator luckless pedestrian's avatar
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    I do think this is a significant problem in this country that requires national attention. We would not tolerate such conditions at our airports so why do we with our roadway networks?

    The level of sacrifice to address the problem will require intensive capital planning. If you look at the history of our roads, they were part of national projects and efforts: the work of the WPA, highway expansions for defense, and the extensions during the 60's. Work since then has been mostly band-aid repairs and expansions to meet the needs of commerce/trips per day analysis.

    Given that we are a capitalist society, then the needs of commerce should not be ignored. We have talked about the need to make improvements due to safety which are true - but this is not the only reason to improve our highway system. If that is the sole reason, then the Band-Aid solution of fixing things up will remain and we will continually react to disasters. There needs to a national goal for evaluating the highway system and making improvements.

    This must also include other modes of transportation. Other modes of transportation cannot be seen as a special interest but as part of the solution and a key component to the system. If there is only one manner to get to Point B from Point A and millions of people need to get to point B every day, it makes no business sense to only provide one option; for if that option fails, we all see what happens. Building codes require a second means of egress, so why not transportation? We need to stop romanticizing the rail system and see it a key component to our commercial activity.

    On projects like the Big Dig: these projects are so immense that the way we think about project management cannot apply to projects this size. I don't have the solution; but we should look at the management and operations of the Big Dig closely to see where the failures were. No one person was responsible; it seems as if it was a series of events, situations and a host of both labor and management personnel that led to failures and cost overruns (though did we know what it really cost to begin with? How can you estimate for a 12 year project accurately? How can any one person manage a project of this magnitude?).

    I hope this gets to a few of your questions - the bottom line is there is that it's NOT simple. The bumper sticker that says "It's the (insert word here), stupid" does not apply...problems cannot be solved in a sound byte.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Being a transportation planner one of the biggest stories we have been trying to convey is that our levels of investment in infrastructure is going down over time, while inflation increases, VMT increases, and the infrastructure ages. I am continously amazed that folks think that money for these programs should just be there.

    Funding mechanisms need to be fixed. It is difficult for folks to understand that gas taxes have remained level for the last 15 years while inflation has ate away at buying power and with folks driving more fuel efficient or less taxed fuels (E-85) that we should be in as good of shape as we were in the 1970's.

    Add into this the need to provide transportation for those who cannot or should not drive, the need to keep the economy humming, and you have quite the pickle.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    It is a problem. It is not, however, a disaster. Rather, it is an indicator that we as a nation need to pay attention to our policies on maintaining infrastructure a bit more carefully, and do more regular examinations of these bits of structure in order to prevent disasters from happenning in the future.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    All we would need to do is pass a law that says every maintenance project has to start and end with a ribbon-cutting for politicians and media to attend. Then there would be no funding problem.


    Seriously, it is a political problem. Let the users pay for the level of maintenance they want. The market is so distorted, here in Texas 25% of the gas tax is diverted to government schools rather than paying for infrastructure. We certainly don't need another level of bureauacracy in the form of some federal-level department to skim off another few % from the top of taxes, and inflate the cost of projects with another set of requirements, more reviews, and additional inspectors.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    I was just having a conversation with my brother who recently returned from a few weeks in Europe - London and Paris mainly. One of the first things he said to me when I asked him about the trip was that things there seemed to a) work very efficiently and b) were so well maintained (old buildings, infrastructure, etc.)

    This got me to thinking about the cultural time depth in other places and what this means about their ability/desire/will to care for the things they build (they have been around long enough to know that you need to take care of your things or they won't last). Of course, dealing with a smaller land mass also has a lot to do with it, but in America, we seem to be very driven to build, but much less so to maintaining, repairing, and improving that which already exists. This has become so much the case that a great deal of new construction (especially commercial building and in particular big box stores) is only designed to last 20-30 years after which it will be razed and replaced with another temporary structure.

    I think this same philosophy applies to infrastructure - we simply have not created the budgetary expectations that what we build (especially that which is built with tax dollars) needs to be cared for if it is to last. We just care about building it in the first place.
    The purpose of life is a life of purpose

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Plan 9's avatar
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    I will admit that I greatly admire older buildings, bridges, etc that have a level of craftsmanship and architectural detail that you seldom see anymore.

    However, if one looks at the acceleration of technology as information transfer improved, it makes me wonder how much of the infrastructure will be outdated in 20-50 years. For example, on the Discovery Channel the other day they were talking about smart cars, that you program in where you want to go and off they go, the experimental ones now though require some hardware in the roads to make em work though. So would it be cheaper to just do the minimum maintenance necessary to keep the roads serviceable until these new smart roads are built? Of course the danger with that approach is that there will always be some new technology on the horizon that will make the current one obsolete.

    The smart road/cars are just one example. Another I've seen articles on is transmitting power without lines, considering the advance of wireless communications, this may not be that far away. So as food for thought, maybe the Las Vegas style of redevelopment may be more economical in the long run...blow it up and build new
    "Future events such as these will affect you in the future."

  9. #9
    Cyburbian b3nr's avatar
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    And if you compared London to Paris Wahday, you'd proberbly feel that Paris' infrastructure is light years ahead of Londons. The UK is very similar to the US in so many ways, the UKs infrastructure is incredibly poor compared to continental Europe. They have trains that run at 200 mph, we have 20 year old deisel things that get to 120 max. Every city over about a million will usually have a tram or metro system, in the UK we don't even have publicly owned bus services, i could go on...

    Fundermentally, you don't pay high enough taxes to have good infrstructure, and neither do we, infrastructure is expensive.

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