Beware the Infrastructure, My Son

Crumbling infrastructure termed “Jagger-esque”

A stitch in time saves nine. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You can lead a horse to water, but if an outdated bridge collapses on it, the meat will wind up marketed by IKEA.

These are truisms I hope to impress upon son Gideon (age 9), the aspiring engineer. The subject comes up because of the recent debate over the nation’s aging infrastructure, spurred by the collapse of an Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River near Mount Vernon, Washington.

You’ve probably heard the facts and figures about deferred maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, including roads, railroads, ports, airports and telecommunications networks. The average bridge in the U.S. is 42 years old; one-third have outlived their expected “lifespan.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s bridges a C-plus grade and our overall infrastructure a D-plus. Forty-two percent of urban roads are classified as “congested.” The Federal Highway Trust Fund may go broke this year. Our structures are variously described as “decaying infrastructure,” “crumbling infrastructure,” “Jagger-esque infrastructure”…

Infrastructure is not a sexy subject. After the initial hoopla over a ribbon-cutting ceremony, we take it for granted. People get more worked up over “Real Housewives” or a celebrity’s “wardrobe malfunction.” Maybe the looming crisis would get more attention if a trailer load of silicone breast implants flipped on an overpass.

Ah, even then, some people would keep pretending nothing is wrong. Long accustomed to convincing themselves that the “service engine soon” light is just a faulty sensor or reassuring themselves that the pain in their chest hasn’t killed them YET, they’ll assume that things will work themselves out.

Of course they could be right. Just as their antiquated municipal sewer system breaks down, but before anything can hit the fan, maybe the nation’s electric grid will completely shut down and stop the fan. Serendipity to the rescue.

I think most states have been good stewards of the public transportation/infrastructure money; but many people are resistant to higher taxes or other remedies because of the sneaking suspicion that we’re still paying for zeppelin mooring posts, Pony Express rails and fur trader canoe ports.

Most damaging, I understand that someone put two and two together when they found line items for “The Road To Morocco” and “Bridge On The River Kwai” in a transportation budget. (“Hey, digitally remastering classics has put us on the ROAD to culture.”)

I don’t advocate throwing money at the problem, but right now the situation is a drag on the economy and a threat to our safety. We need to prioritize problem sites, employ high-tech sensors to make inspection more efficient and innovate less painful means of financing.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long pushed for more maintenance funds, but some observers excuse foot dragging by our leaders because the necessary measures would be “politically risky.” Hmmm. Let’s put politically risky in the balance with PHYSICALLY risky. If it comes down to a choice of getting blown to Kingdom Come by a faulty gas line or having to give a concession speech, I think I could sob “My loyal constituents, we fought a hard reelection campaign; but now I’ll have to content myself with my pension and my memoirs” with the best of them.

Danny Tyree
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