It would be so expensive to fix hundreds of thousands of bridges that it’s just not going to happen.

Speaking of Time Magazine, and apropos recent posts about infrastructure in the US. They have a couple of articles up at the moment. This is a quote from one about bridges, specifically the pieces of the one that used to be a bridge in Minnesota.

…as everyone knows by now, the bridge was deemed “structurally deficient” starting in 1990. That didn’t result in an emergency repair order, but rather an intention to replace the bridge by 2020 — not unusual, evidently, since the designation doesn’t suggest imminent danger.

It would be so expensive to fix hundreds of thousands of bridges that it’s just not going to happen. But these numbers highlight the problem of the nation’s infrastructure. No word is likely to make taxpayers’ eyes glaze over more quickly. As a result, officials at all levels of government tend to defer maintenance on bridges and roadways; the voters wouldn’t stand for the required expenditures, estimated at more than $9 billion a year. They might, however, be willing to pay for more frequent and thorough inspections, which could distinguish the structurally deficient bridges in imminent danger of failure from those that aren’t.

In Minnesota, Gov. Pawlenty announced an immediate emergency round of inspections of all of the state’s bridges, starting with the three that have the same structure as the crumbled Minneapolis span.

My wife asked me, yesterday, whether this habit of closing barn doors once horses have bolted (or, as is often the case, once the barn has burned to the ground) was an American one. I said yes, principally because the tendency, with regard to maintenance of infrastructure, to waste time and money on unimportant things, thinking they are important, and ignoring the necessary things, strikes me as stronger, here. I could be wrong: Thames Water might blow up in all our faces tomorrow, and that would just show me.

The United States has a huge amount of infrastructure, and last year passed the Highway Bill, USD275bn of pork, fairly widely panned as being as dead useless as the Congress that passed it. “So expensive to fix hundreds of thousands of bridges”? I submit that that Highway Bill probably could have done it. The money lost, literally, on top of that lost to cost-plus bloody contracting, in Iraq, could have done. The Pentagon just got its USD460bn budget – some of that could have done it. A war on terror? We can’t defend our bridges from gravity or standing water.

This is not to say it would be cheap. I’ve seen a USD240m estimate for the bridge in Minnesota. But estimates put the Iraq war at coming to the trillion-US-dollar mark. If we can afford that

Alan Weisman’s very wonderful A World Without Us has an excellent description of the problem mentioned in the Time article: that concrete and steel are very different substances. Put the together, and they will work towards their own destruction. Standard theories of entropy apply. His chapter detailing the return of New York city to something resembling a natural state has a Bridge guy (? I don’t know what they’re called) detailing how a bridge comes down, when humans aren’t there to keep them up.

Following bridges:

Setting the Stage for More Katrinas

Once again, it’s President Bush against just about everyone else. This time, he’s vowing to veto the Water Resources Development Act, a wildly popular collection of 940 Army Corps of Engineers projects, including $3.5 billion for post-Katrina Louisiana and $2 billion for the Florida Everglades. The House passed it Wednesday night in a 381-40 squeaker, and the Senate vote should be similar; archliberal Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer of California and arch-conservative ranking Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma can’t agree on the color of the sky, but they’re both pledging to override a veto.

But this time, Bush is right. WRDA is a lousy bill, stuffed with more pork than Sonny’s Barbecue, coddling a dysfunctional agency, perpetuating a dysfunctional system. Louisiana and the Everglades need help, but they won’t get it until Congress fixes the Corps. This bill just sets the stage for future Katrinas.

If only the pork was the reason for Bush’s veto, as opposed to money for New Orleans (about which he clearly does not give a shit) or protecting the Everglades (flood buffer zones are a waste of perfectly good golf course and other development opportunities). The legislation is still shit, though. Once more, legislation supposedly targeting infrastructure is nothing more than a patchwork of horse-trading jobs-for-states.

I don’t think Michael Grunwald (author) is fair in laying this all at the feet of the Army Corps of Engineers. George W Bush is the fucking president. The buck stops with him (or did the last time a guy in his office nuked innocent civilians), and it’s his job to have someone with a mouth, two eyes and a brain find out these problems and tell him, so that he can lean on that other branch of government (no, not Dick Cheney) and make public a public need for responsible government. He’s as culpable as anybody else – and there’s a heft enough body of evidence surrounding Hurricane Katrina to lay plenty of blame at the steps of the White House (or wherever the President is, on another of his record-breaking-number-of vacations).

Grunwald also wrote the cover piece for Time on Katrina, come its second anniversary. The first paragraph should be put on plaques all over the nation:

The most important thing to remember about the drowning of New Orleans is that it wasn’t a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster, created by lousy engineering, misplaced priorities and pork-barrel politics. Katrina was not the Category 5 killer the Big Easy had always feared; it was a Category 3 storm that missed New Orleans, where it was at worst a weak 2. The city’s defenses should have withstood its surges, and if they had we never would have seen the squalor in the Superdome, the desperation on the rooftops, the shocking tableau of the Mardi Gras city underwater for weeks.

He does more Corps-blaming than I’d like (there’s that agency problem, again: amongst other things, if GPs respond to financial incentives, why won’t the rest of us?).

This comes to what I tell my students a lot. There’s no such thing as Big Government vs. Small Government. That’s a debate for ideologues who don’t give a shit about you. Or, in the famous words of Chris Rock, anybody who makes his mind up before hearing about the issue is a fucking fool. There is only Good Government and Bad Government. Good Government protects you. It takes no more than it needs to provide you with what, by electoral consensus, you have declared you need or want. However big that makes government, then that is as it should be. The United States government does not need to be smaller. It does not need to be bigger. It just needs to start acting like a Government, instead of an exclusive club for politicians and lobbyists.


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