Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bridging the Gap

The I-35 bridge collapse last August in Minneapolis demonstrated why maintenance and upkeep are critical. Here in NYC we are having the same issues with our subway system. Here is an article discussing larger infrastructure issues and how money is being diverted to newer, sexier projects.

No powerful interest group lobbies to make sure bridge-repair funds don't get diverted to new highways. On the contrary, well-connected developers and road builders lobby aggressively for wider lanes, new branch roads and additional off ramps. Builders often prefer lucrative contracts to pour concrete and steel for new highways rather than the uncertainty of relatively complex and labor-intensive restoration and repair. Preventative maintenance is scarcely noticed or celebrated by the public, and politicians far too often prefer shiny new roadways that they can cut ribbons for and point to as accomplishments.
Any homeowner with a leaky roof or cracked foundation knows how tempting it is to put off repairs until next summer.

The state of Minnesota consistently gave in to that temptation. In fact, the state auditor found that since 2002 more than half of the highway spending in the state was directed to expanding rather than maintaining roads, despite the department's own "preservation first" policy to do the opposite. Minnesota repeatedly borrowed money for ambitious highway expansion projects while leaving insufficient funds to maintain existing roadways. State officials and local governments repeatedly pushed the transportation department in that direction.

The bigger question is why the funds for repair and maintenance are being used to further growth (new projects). Why would I build an addition on my house if my roof is caving in? Nobody would do that, but that is exactly what states and cities all across the US are doing. Deferred maintenance doesn't help anyone in the end.

It is time to start talking about growth, not "smart," but how to stop it and first make sure our current infrastructure and built environment can handle the existing carrying capacity and population. So many new projects these days are driven by population projections, but those are merely projections. We need to start taking a hard look at our blocks, communities, and neighborhoods, and working on the improvements that get delayed year after year. There really is no excuse for accepting anything less from our leaders and elected officials. How many more disasters and lives need to be lost before we realize our mistakes?

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