Why Bridges Fall and Radios Fall Silent

Much has been made of the recent collapse of the Saint Anthony’s Bridge in Minnesota. Today’s Washingtion Post headlines a story about how the advanced technology given to local governments in response to 9/11 has fallen into disrepair and disuse because the local governments did not have the money to fund the long term maintenance.

In 2003, the FBI used a $25 million grant to give bomb squads across the nation state-of-the-art computer kits, enabling them to instantly share information about suspected explosives, including weapons of mass destruction.

Four years later, half of the Washington area’s squads can’t communicate via the $12,000 kits, meant to be taken to the scene of potential catastrophes, because they didn’t pick up the monthly wireless bills and maintenance costs initially paid by the FBI. Other squads across the country also have given up using them.

“They worked, and it was a good idea — until the subscription ran out,” said Mike Love, who oversees the bomb squad in Montgomery County’s fire department. At the local level, he said, “there is not budget money for it.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the area has received more than $1 billion in federal money to strengthen first responders and secure the region. That money has bought satellite phones, radios, protective suits, water-security monitors and a host of other items.

But local officials are grappling with how to maintain the huge infusion of equipment. Like a driver whose 5-year-old luxury sedan has worn-out brakes, cracked tires and engine problems, local governments are facing hefty bills to keep their gear working.

Thus, what was an excellent idea ended up being a rather expensive flop. Excellent equipment that isn’t used or can’t be used because there isn’t enough money to continue the upkeep.

That seems to be the story of the American infrastructure. Once something has been created, all problems are solved – move along, move along.

Anyone who owns a car, knows this isn’t true. Not only do you need to purchase the vehicle, you need to continue maintaining it. As the car ages, the maintenance costs don’t decrease or remain stable, they increase until it becomes necessary to scrap the car and replace it. That will probably need to happen in the next few years with most of the interstate bridges in America.

Interestingly for all those people who would simply like to privatize the current system – fat lot of good that will do.

For those with limited historical background, it might be good to remember that all the railroads in America in the last century were either completely private or public/private joint ventures. That didn’t save them. They collapsed under the weight of increasing infrastructure costs coupled with a change in demographics. The same thing will happen to the American Interstate System.

A rail/road system might have been an option, loading cars and trucks onto trains for long distance travel. It might have even been more economical than building completely new interstates, but that wasn’t well understood at the time. The future was freedom, the future was in interstates. That’s the legacy we are now inheriting.

And even the privatised systems will walk into the maintenance trap. This can be shown in fast forward in the case of plank roads, popular in the 1840’s . The idea was to make toll roads not of rock or stone, but of a relatively cheap material, wood. You charge people to use the road and the cost of replacing the road is far enough off that it either wasn’t seriously considered or completely underestimated. This lead to a boom in plank road building. It also lead inexorably to the collapse of the system 10 years later as the planks began to rot and needed replacement.

Five years ago, the GAO produced a rather positively titled report “HIGHWAY INFRASTRUCTURE, Physical Conditions of the Interstate Highway System Have Improved, but Congestion and Other Pressures Continue.”

On the surface one would think the problem might be in the idea that there just aren’t enough highways. Systems must be created to clear up the major problem, congestion and everything else is secondary. Ah, but how relative secondary can be.

The really unnerving graph doesn’t show up until the final pages. Preceded by the following quote,

Another factor negatively affecting the condition of Interstate pavement and bridges is the age of the infrastructure. For example, half of the Interstate bridges are currently over 33 years old. (See fig. 7.) Officials from one state we visited explained that many of their state’s Interstate bridges were built about 40 years ago and are reaching the end of their estimated 50-year design life. In addition, officials in 45 states believe age may jeopardize their bridge conditions: officials in 38 states expect age to negatively affect their pavement conditions 10 years from now.

one finds the following graph (click for full size).

Year Interstate Bridges Were Built

Privatize away. Who is going to build the new bridges? Where does that funding come from?

Perhaps Rome wasn’t build in a day; neither was the American Interstate Highway System. But when a lot of things get built at the same time, a lot of things need repair and replacement at the same time. Fixing things isn’t nearly as sexy as building new stuff; there isn’t any red ribbon to cut on a newly refurbished stretch of highway. Just a sigh and the sad realisation that the next job is right around the corner. Replacing things that are worn out is even worse; it’s a thankless job to get people back to a perceived status quo. (That bridge was fine, it hadn’t collapsed yet.)

One of the problems Rome faced at the end was the fact that income was no longer able to support the infrastructure built up over hundreds of years. Ask yourself the very real question: where does America stand now? Is New Orleans back to normal? That was a challenge to the American willingness to rebuild a specific area.

As the challenges spread and the pressures increase, will the old bridges fall just as the new radios fell silent?

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