Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Again, this is why we do not privatise public utilities

We’ve been down this road: with water (also here), with public roads, with rail. With electricity.

And again with electricity:

NSW taxpayers could be forced to pay more than $15 billion to indemnify private companies bidding for the state’s power assets, a report has found.

The indemnities – against losses that privatised coal-fired power stations would face under a new national carbon trading scheme – would wipe out the $15 billion revenue boost the Iemma Government expects to gain from the privatisation.

An analysis by the independent think tank the Australia Institute has revealed the carbon trading scheme the Federal Government intends to introduce to combat global warming would dramatically reduce the value of coal-fired generators.

According to the author of the report, economist and institute director Clive Hamilton, the cost of the indemnity could reach $15.4 billion.

“This amount would be the cost borne by NSW citizens if the NSW Government indemnifies private buyers against future carbon liabilities,” he concludes.

Maybe, maybe not:

The State Government has challenged the institute’s findings. Alison Hill, a spokeswoman for the Premier, Morris Iemma, told the Herald last night: “There will not be an indemnity.”

But the Iemma Government has set a precedent by indemnifying Bluescope Steel for the next 25 years to ensure new investment in its Port Kembla steelworks.

“The Government has form on this issue,” Dr Hamilton said. “And they will come under even greater pressure from potential buyers to offer them indemnities, too. There is nothing to say the Government could not, and would not, do this in secret, using all sorts of commercial-in-confidence provisions, and the public may know nothing about it for 20 years.”

The NSW Government said last night the indemnity given to Bluescope did not apply if a carbon trading regime was introduced.

Of what is and is not a part of the conversation, Clive Hamilton made this excellent point:

“It’s a bad time to be selling electricity assets when there is so much uncertainty about the carbon liability of coal-fired power plants,” Dr Hamilton said.

The institute’s report warns that no prudent investor would commit to major expenditure in such a risky commercial environment, predicting that “carbon liability and the indemnity issue will dominate negotiations in the sale process”.

If there is one truth to privatisation, it is that the private capital folk make damn sure there will be no bag-holding done by them. The risk is always pushed into the future, and onto taxpayers – the group without a seat at the table. There is no reason why this will go any differently for NSW citizens.

In fact, if the government is serious about forming any manner of trading scheme, it makes sense for them to retain, securely, control over any public utilities that will form key components of such a scheme. Selling them off and then going for cap-and-trade regulation is not at all the sensible order of things.

Did Thoreau say “simplify” or “gentrify”?

Interesting piece floating around in the Wall Street Journal –

The word “gentrification” conjures up images of once-poor urban neighborhoods invaded by cappuccino bars and million-dollar condos. Now, broad swaths of rural America — from New England to the Rocky Mountain West — are being gussied up, too.

Affluent retirees and other high-income types have descended on these remote areas, creating new demand for amenities like interior-design stores, spas and organic markets. For many communities, it’s the biggest change since the interstate highway system came barreling through in the 1960s and 1970s.

With the Internet allowing people to work from almost anywhere, the distinction between first and second homes has become blurred. Many people are buying retirement property while they’re still employed. Millions of soon-to-retire baby boomers, say demographers, will propel this trend for years to come.

“What we’re seeing is a class colonization,” says Peter Nelson, an associate professor of geography at Middlebury College and an expert on rural migration. “It really represents a shift in the nature of the economy from a resource-extraction economy to an aesthetic-based economy.”

For me, the word ‘gentrification’ conjurs up images of the death of niceness about Newtown, Sydney. Opinions differ (probably not amongst Sydney Uni alumni, though). Graphically, for the US (click for the story/larger version):

wsj pic

Here’s a “con”:

Today, Valley County is attracting newcomers from as far away as New York and Sydney. They’re putting up second and third residences costing well over $1 million — price levels once reserved for the few waterfront properties.

In recent years, developers have snatched up land for $100,000 an acre in some cases, or 40 times what it fetched as farmland. Though home prices here are declining as in other parts of the nation, houses still cost about 60% more than in 2004.

And a “pro”:

The influx of money is creating new jobs in hotels and restaurants as traditional industries like farming and timber fade out. Tamarack ski resort in nearby Donnelly helped super-charge growth in the area. Opened in 2004, the resort, the nation’s newest downhill ski destination, is expected to cost about $1.5 billion when fully completed in a decade or so.

Retail sales in the Valley County area increased 30% between 2003 and 2005, according to local research. New members in the McCall Chamber of Commerce include a jewelry store and two art galleries.

Ultimately, such a phenomenon as this is neither good nor bad, necessarily. George Monbiot supplied what is still the best indictment against owners of second, rarely-occupied, homes. As mentioned above said people can easily afford to drive the costs of housing up (and, more importantly, beyond the range of affordability of those living and working in the townships for generations), while simultaneously starving local businesses of steady patronage. That is a bad (not for nothing did Monbiot call such people Britains Most Selfish).

Here’s a different perspective. Consider this detail:

One indicator of rural gentrification: An increase in residents’ total dividend, interest and rent income. That measurement, tracked by the Commerce Department, is a sign that new residents — usually retirees — are living off their investments rather than salaries.

Coupled with the line about internet penetration in the US, working from home, etc. This is a different locus of optimality: Jim Kunstler’s argument(s) about down-scaling regional and local economies. That makes this phenomenon a good one: if people leave cities for rural communities sure, they will probably use a car more often – but, odds are, their food won’t.

On aggregate, if – as it appears to me – we’re seeing an initialisation of economic devolution, that fits in well with the Kunstler universe. We shall see, by and by: water and energy use is another issue (particularly as schools, hospitals, etc. develop): if this is an initialisation of erstwhile-rural urbanisation, those gains will all be wiped out.

The Jim Kunstler preparedness check-list

From yesterday’s Clusterfuck Nation (this is an abridged version).

  1. Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.
  2. End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid (this includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program).
  3. Begin planning and construction of waterfront and harbor facilities for commerce: piers, warehouses, ship-and-boatyards, and accommodations for sailors.
  4. In cities and towns, change regulations that mandate the accommodation of cars. Direct all new development to the finest grain, scaled to walkability.
  5. Institute “locational taxation” based on proximity to the center of town and not on the size, character, or putative value of the building itself. Put in effect a ban on buildings in excess of seven stories.
  6. … begin a public debate about whether it is feasible or desirable to construct any new nuclear power plants. If there are good reasons to go forward with nuclear, and a consensus about the risks and benefits, we need to establish it quickly.
  7. … prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. The centralized high schools all over the nation will prove to be our most frustrating mis-investment. We will probably have to replace them with some form of home-schooling that is allowed to aggregate into neighborhood units. A lot of colleges, public and private, will fail as higher ed ceases to be a “consumer” activity.
  8. Corporations scaled to operate globally are not going to make it. This includes probably all national chain “big box” operations. It will have to be replaced by small local and regional business.
  9. Take a time-out from legal immigration and get serious about enforcing the laws about illegal immigration.
  10. Prepare psychologically for the destruction of a lot of fictitious “wealth” — and allow instruments and institutions based on fictitious wealth to fail, instead of attempting to keep them propped up on credit life-support.
  11. Prepare psychologically for a sociopolitical climate of anger, grievance, and resentment. A lot of individual citizens will find themselves short of resources in the years ahead. They will be very ticked off and seek to scapegoat and punish others.

I believe thought-provoking is the usual compliment. Debate-provoking would be a lot more useful, but that stronger criterion depends more heavily on the rest of us.

I, for one, am with him completely on rail, light rail and shipping commerce. Rail here is worse than a joke: it’s plain insulting to a country as wealthy and richly-resourced as this. His arguments concerning civic infrastructure (including hospitals and schools) make for a very interesting wool-gathering spending of time. The immigration issue is equally interesting (not sure I agree, but I believe he is being pragmatic and, ultimately, he is right: the way things will be is the way things will be. There will be little time or space for normative time-wasting, cometh the hour).

Evaluating public expenditure: measuring outcomes

Depending upon where you’re from, you will have more or less familiarity with the issue of cycle-ways in urban environments (being from Sydney and now living in NY – and not being a motorist – I am fairly familiar with it).

New York, for example, has made significant moves towards cycle-friendly transit lanes (this is 2nd Avenue, way downtown, via Streetsblog:

Streetsblog 1

Streetsblog 2

Sydney, of late, is beginning to get ‘with it’. Economic evaluation comes in when you look at this sort of thing and ask, “was that worth it?” Think about New York City, for example. The nominal cost of this stuff is a few cans of paint; the full cost is something else: diminished space for cars means slower traffic; slower traffic means higher costs. Is the Excess Burden placed on the city worth it? For Sydney:

Money wasted on cyclists: NRMA

Taxpayers are pouring millions of dollars into lining motorways with cycleways that are barely used – and are building a new bicycle lane the NRMA says will effectively cost $300,000 for every cyclist that uses it.

Despite pleas from Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, for bicycles to reclaim the streets, the motoring organisation says residents are sticking to four wheels.

In a submission to the Roads and Traffic Authority it accuses the Government of wasting millions on cyclists at the expense of motorists, who are forced to battle worsening congestion as lanes are removed from busy roads.

The cycling lane on the M2 attracted just 130 cyclists a day. The Iemma Government is building a cycleway alongside choked Epping Road, despite as few as 25 cyclists using that corridor each day.
At $7.6 million for the Epping Road cycleway, the NRMA says that would amount to spending $300,000 per cyclist on a lane that is unlikely to attract many more riders, based on the experiences of the M2 motorway.

But:

A spokesman for the RTA said the cycleway would attract many more cyclists than those now using Epping Road. He said the NRMA’s figure was not a true reflection of how popular the new cycleway would be once completed.

“If you give cyclists a dedicated facility instead of riding in normal traffic, they will use it,” the spokesman said.

Hence the title: how is the outcome being measured, here? It would appear that measuring the number of cyclists utilising the cycleway is already premature (which is common sense: one should wait until public infrastructure is settled and known before measuring use of that infrastructure), but is the argument/suggestion that the number of cyclists on a cycleway is the outcome measure even valid?

This takes us back, immediately, to the timing of the measurement. Squeezing traffic is half the point: we are supposed to be offering motorists a dis-incentive. Expanding road-space to deal with cars is like expanding your belt to deal with obesity – it’s just plain silly. After a while we should return to see (a) how many bikes are on the road, (b) how many cars, and (b.2) how many motorists have swapped their car for cycling, and finally (c) other public transport.

This, too, is where merely measuring bicycles is off the point, because transit is a multivalent measure. If the problem is cars, pollution, etc., the solution has to be everything that isn’t cars. In which case everything that isn’t cars has to be, somehow, the outcome measure.

Other issues, such as crowding out (a negative), incomes generated (a positive), and so forth are also important. Pointing at bikes on a path and a bill to the taxpayer is not, necessarily, evaluation.

Australia’s deficit of investment in trade infrastructure

Time for Prime Minister Rudd (wee!) to get to work,

Australia has ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed the instrument of ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in his first act after being sworn in this morning.

He said the Federal Government would do everything in its power to help Australia meet its Kyoto obligations, including setting a target to reduce emissions by 60 per cent on 2000 levels by 2050.

It also would establish a national emissions trading scheme by 2010 and set a 20 per cent target for renewable energy by 2020.

No no, not the feelgood-but-ultimately-incomplete Kyoto accords (although it is nice to leave the US to its pariah status, alone); the trading scheme is a better move, though.

No, I meant all that stuff we dig out of the ground, on which we’re struggling to make money because we can’t get it out of the bloody country in time.

Australia recorded its largest ever monthly trade deficit in October as supply bottlenecks choked off mining exports, while strong domestic demand sucked in imports.

Exports fell 3.4 percent compared to September, with metal ores and minerals down 20 percent, metals off 22 percent and coal falling 11 percent.

In contrast, imports climbed 2.3 percent with higher oil prices causing the biggest dent in the trade balance.

While the boom in commodity prices of recent years has greatly boosted Australia’s earnings from its resource exports, the country has struggled to boost output, in part due to rail and port bottlenecks.

A lingering drought has cut into farming shipments while a rising Australian dollar has hurt by making exports more expensive to foreign buyers, as many commodity goods are priced in a falling U.S. dollar.

That in turn was pressuring profit margins. A separate report from the government on Monday showed company profits fell 2.1 percent after tax in the third quarter, a surprise to analysts who had looked for a 2.0 percent increase.

Mining was again the main culprit with gross profits falling a steep 11.6 percent in the quarter, while manufacturing suffered a 4.5 percent drop.

Eco 1 students, pay attention:

Firms also added to inventories at a faster pace than expected, with a 1.3 percent increase to $113 billion. That was likely to add around 0.3 percentage point to gross domestic product (GDP) in the quarter, when most analysts had looked for a neutral impact. The GDP numbers are due on Wednesday.

“The strong growth in inventories will obviously push up GDP in the quarter,” said Rob Henderson, chief economist markets at nabCapital. “It looks like it has added to the view that we’re going to see strong GDP in the quarter.”

See how GDP can increase, based on things nobody has bought (yet)?

This is not the first time we’ve seen this problem hurt our balance of payments, either. Being prejudiced against the former (yay!) Prime Minister and his ultimately, proven, cowardly Treasurer, however, I can be optimistic that, perhaps, something can be done about this before the commodities boom is over. It would be no end of frustrating if, with hundreds of ships lined up outside our ports, we missed our boat.

So. Time for our more/actually aware and adaptive new Prime Minister (hooray!) to focus the attention of his government on Australia’s flagging productivity.

Apparently electricity is not a natural monopoly anymore

This is the only conclusion I can draw from this report:

The NSW government should sell off both the retail arms and the generation business of the state’s electricity sector, an inquiry has recommended.

Prof Owen said NSW needed to be in a position where new electricity baseload generation could be operational by 2013-14.

He said if the government retained most of the state’s electricity industry it would almost certainly have to fund the next baseload generator.

To do this, the financial impact on the state could be up to $15 billion.

Prof Owen said transferring the retail and generation interests to the private sector would secure ongoing generation investment in the state that was adequate, economic and timely.

The report also recommends the NSW government support a planned review of the effectiveness of retail competition, by the Australian Energy Market Commission, in 2010.

The government should then consider removing regulated retail price caps if the review found there was effective competition in the NSW retail market.

The report is here, in a thoroughly user-non-friendly form (even the table of contents is a bloody .pdf). Now, electricity production is considered a natural monopoly because its infrastructure costs are so high. Given that, I don’t understand why those costs to a state put new baseload capacity at risk, while those costs to private firms guarantee that capacity being built:

  1. The state of NSW has more money
  2. The state of NSW, if it doesn’t have enough money, is a more reliable borrower than a private enterprise, so it can secure capital at lower rents (i.e. interest rates, a cost we as consumers will also pay)
  3. The whole point to a natural monopoly is that there will most likely be only a single firm, probably not achieving technical efficiency – why should that firm be a private one? Introducing profit only exacerbates the cost problem
  4. Why does a review of the likelihood of competition come after the recommendation to privatise? Shouldn’t the Owen Inquiry have established that competition is guaranteed before making such a recommendation as this?

There are a number of other issues, prime among them (I think) environmental. The state is going to want to retain control over what manner of baseload generation is allowed. If we don’t want nuclear generation, or we don’t want coal, it makes sense that the State is building the new capacity. It does not make sense for a private firm (or cooperative) to be doing so, and then squabbling with the state over land use, environmental controls, etc.

Secondly, and relatedly, the secondary recommendation to lease the generation to the private sector. Keeping infrastructure and leasing operation to the private sector has yet to show itself to be a bad idea. Have the men and women of this inquiry never taken a train in the UK? Or a train in Sydney, NSW, for that matter? Used that cross-city tunnel? Visited Melbourne? These enterprises have not gone wrong because governments cocked up the process. They’ve gone wrong because they’re always going to go wrong.

Private electricity generation, in a society where the state will make demands over price (within reason. I’ve said before that it is too cheap), land use, environmental externalities, method of production, universal supply (i.e. not pricing people out of the market, or refusing service). Anything else? Along the way, we’ll take the lowest bid, which will turn out to be unrealistic, then face the private sector moaning about costs, <a href=”“>squabbling about which are the responsibility of whom, and ever-demanding higher rents (the economic one, not the housing one) to keep shareholders happy.

If it’s a leveraged purchased by privateers, look forward to those demands being linked to interest rates. If it’s a private equity purchase, look forward to not even being certain who will own the system in 6 months’ time, after they’ve taken their profit and sold out (and we all know how post-buy-out profit-taking goes).

Along the way, households will pay for someone’s profit along with their electricity, which just does not make sense. I’m sure mostly anybody can agree that electricity is a merit good of sorts – we all should have it, or access to it. We shouldn’t have a ‘plus’ on top of our bill, that goes to a shareholder. Nor should we pay taxes to a government that gives a portion to a private enterprise to give to their shareholders. If the government wants to tax us to build new capacity, do so. Tax current electricity. We’ll use less, use it more wisely, thereby reducing the over-consumption problem while simultaneously contributing to the funds for the next generation of baseload capacity. People aren’t idiots, they will understand algebra as basic as this.

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a problem. I just don’t see how the problem possibly, in any sense, suits the solution of a private market, or a semi-private one. These problems never have, and this one will not go at all pleasantly if anybody tries. Pro-market liberal conservatism, third ways, Private Finance Initiatives. The globe is scattered with their predictable-by-an-idiot failures. Why do we persist?

Land ahoy: buyers spy relief in fringe release

Or at least, that’s what I’m told (with apologies to Johnny Cash).

Sydney home buyers should get some relief from high housing prices, following the State Government’s release of more than 17,000 new vacant lots, to go on sale over the next 18 months.

Premier Morris Iemma said yesterday the land will add to the 33,000 Landcom housing lots already earmarked for new housing developments in the city’s south-west and north-west fringes.

The home sites are near Mount Annan and Campbelltown in the south-west and The Ponds in the north-west as well as Oran Park, near Camden and Stanhope near Blacktown.

Mr Iemma warned increases in interest rates were the major deterrent to people investing in the new home developments.

This is some definition of fringe. Mount Annan is way out:

Mt Annan

Oran Park is known as the home of a raceway, put there because of its (then) isolation – but you’ll be right on the doorstep of those supertruck races, now)

Oran Park

While Stanhope Gardens (damn newspapers) isn’t so much near Blacktown as Baulkham Hills – i.e. North-East-ish, where few trains go.

Stanhope Gardens

In all of these cases, you will need a car. From Mount Annan you drive to Campbelltown and settle into a 90-minute-odd train ride into the city (if that’s where you work – more on that in a second), although my Uncle (who lives near Picton, just south of there) has more than a few stories of that plan coming undone. Same with Oran Park, and from Stanhope Gardens you probably would drive to Blacktown to spend only about 40 minutes on the train into the city.

This assumes you work in the city. Blacktown and Parramatta are doing a good turn becoming serious commercial hubs within the greater City of Sydney. If your job is there, you might be okay, although you’ll still face an impressive commute, considering it’s to an outer urban hub. I can’t comment further about not being involved in or through Sydney city itself, because I’ll sound like an asshole.

If you’re one of those people suffering from, or getting all worked up about (or both) house prices in the Inner Suburbs, this will do nothing at all for you – you probably have never been to Mount Annan, for all I know (nice parks and gardens out there, though. I recommend it). I doubt you’d manage at all well, living there, if you even would, and I can’t see it doing much for house prices in Sydenham or Marrickville, if you don’t.

Bear in mind also the shortfall in NSW is scheduled to be in the 95,000 mark – an extra 17,000 lots makes a dent, but not much of one. Moreover it applies a weak balm to the central irritation – clinging to the city of Sydney, when there are many areas in the state (and the country) where you quality of life would arguably be better, as a family. Certainly better than some suburban island with barely a municipal bus network. A look at petrol prices and a few peak-hours practiced on the highway will probably deter most people.

I just don’t see how “here, strand yourselves in this community, own your own home and shut up” counts as policy. Unless the state government (currently borrowing a whopping AUD10.4bn to add to its already AUD25bn of debt) has some big plans to deal with the infrastructure required to actually service and include these communities, this move is just offering potential owners the one thing we insist they want – ownership – and hoping urban sprawl will end up working itself out, in the end.

When we run out of oil New York will be first against the wall

I believe this fairly strongly. Los Angeles, too (but I don’t live there). Taking the bus back and forth from Pennsylvania, I see, just over the other side of New Jersey, how out of touch this city is with its immediate, actually productive areas. Nor can it be sustained by any upstate farming once the lights go out. I’ve subscribed mostly to the position taken by James Kunstler that, while big cities will be excellent sources of scap material and Calvin Klein suits (for anybody reading Hiroki Endo’s Eden), smaller cities match more accurately cities of old, pre-industrially speaking.

Now, via The Oil Drum, and the Energy Bulletin, comes this piece (essay? I can never tell what gets called an essay, in America) on the Archdruid Report, the blog of John Michael Greer, the Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America). His thesis is similar, though spectacularly well-written:

Whether the apocalypse du jour is nuclear war, pandemic disease, racial conflict, Communist takeover, fascist police state takeover, the imminent arrival of Antichrist, or what have you, the accepted way to deal with it is to flee to some isolated location in the mountains and wait for the rubble to stop bouncing.

He started off talking about The Pilgrim Progress.

Too often the lifeboat communities imagined by today’s peak oil writers are simply suburban bedroom communities on steroids, postapocalyptic Levittowns that, like their 1950s equivalents, are meant to allow their residents to maintain a privileged way of life while the rest of society goes to hell in a handbasket at a comfortable distance.

Imagine, by contrast, a city of between 20,000 and 200,000 people in a mostly agricultural region … In the far more plausible scenario of uneven decline and slow depopulation spread out over many decades, such a city would have immense advantages over a rural lifeboat community. Located within easy reach of surrounding farmland, stocked with raw materials in the form of surplus buildings, cars, and the like, and a large enough work force to allow division of labor and the production of specialty goods, the city could easily import food and other necessities by supplying trade goods to the nearby countryside, the way cities in preindustrial times have always done.

The difference is that big cities like New York and Los Angeles do not really produce anything. When the lights go out – or begin to dim – what is it that these cities have to offer? Culture? What good are actors when there isn’t enough resources to make or watch films? We can’t eat the stuff, or burn it to keep warm in winter. It won’t turn into fresh water.

The smaller cities are, as Greer outlines in this article (and as James Kunstler has detailed several times, though with angrier prose) simply much better-placed to provide trades and manufactured goods required/demanded by rural communities, while being able to live sustainably on the goods their rural neighbours can offer in return. Mega cities, as we are wont to call them, just have too many people, many of whom provide services we will not need.

These same factors make the maintenance of public order much less challenging – the sort of rural brigandage that springs up in the last years of civilizations could make life very difficult for a rural lifeboat community, but a city with a large organized militia centered on its police force and pre-decline National Guard units would be a much tougher nut to crack.

Finally, most small to midsized cities have the cultural and social resources – libraries and colleges, community groups of many kinds, and a lively tradition of local politics, among other things – to maintain some approximation of civilized life even in hard times. In a deindustrializing world, all these things are potent sources of strength. While there will undoubtedly be failures from a variety of causes, all these things make cities among the most viable options for personal and cultural survival as the deindustrial age opens around us.

The article makes two critical assumptions: first, that we do in fact return to a pre-industrial world, i.e. that something new does not come along, or does not come along in a sufficient energy-density; second that cities act, prepare and re-structure themselves in order to meet the new paradigm. Absent either or both of those, and this will never come to bear. Be warned also, it is written somewhat creatively. Broad-brush-wise, there’s no reason why this eventuality should be any less likely than any other though – plus it’s a blog-entry. It is short and worth reading.

With regard to incentives, however: assuming the post-peak decline is steady-ish, rather than abrupt (at which point one can imagine all hell breaking loose), there is a problem. Mega-city inhabitants of sufficient wealth will probably move to the smaller, manageable cities of their choice, as will the ex-urban crowd – but what if this sort of mass migration is too unevenly-spaced? There is the risk that several/many smaller cities will face not being so small, after all – i.e. all their best-laid plans coming undone because of the bloody Middle-Class invasion from elsewhere. I suppose that’s where that locally-autocratic National Guard element will come in handy…

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.