Thursday, August 02, 2007

Troubled Bridge Over Water

[posted by Callimachus]

The author of books warning of America's structural vulnerability says the Minnesota bridge collapse was something we had coming.

Age and heavy use are by no means isolated conditions. According to a report card released in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), 160,570 bridges, or just over one-quarter of the nation’s 590,750-bridge inventory, were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. ...

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span.

I find myself nodding in agreement, but also noting several odd convergences. What was that holy Eisenhower highway system all about, anyhow? Wasn't it an expression of the military-industrial complex? Wasn't it using the Cold War, and the need to move masses of people in a hurry, as an excuse to shovel federal pork into the maws of corporations politically connected to the administration -- including the automobile manufacturers and the oil industry?

And, when Americans die due to a neglected infrastructure falling down, I find it easy to examine the root causes within our culture and the decisions made, or not made, that led to the calamity. When Americans die because hate-filled terrorists kill them, an attempt to explain the calamity solely by introspection and an appeal to our own past blunders seems ludicrous to the point of mental illness. Yet some people don't seem to see any difference.