Thursday, August 16, 2007

Infrastructure and Politics

I guess I'm just a glutton for democratic politics. For the second day in a row, I attended a public meeting for the discussion of (what else?) the I-35W bridge reconstruction process. Hosted by MPR (yay!), paneled by Rybak, a state senator, an engineer, and a half-dozen policy wonks, attended by seventy or so concerned citizens, it was a great open forum to discuss the state of public infrastructure, funding sources, good (or bad) governance, and public faith in the government's ability to maintain said infrastructure.

The debate revealed an essential problem in the public discussion of infrastructure. On the one hand, discussions of infrastructure are necessarily scientific and dominated by engineers: what kinds of roads can be built at all? what kind of volume can they handle? how long will it take to build a certain bridge according to certain specifications?

But as soon as the discussion turns to funding, the discussion becomes necessarily political. Despite one participant's observation that the state once experimented with requiring a cost-benefit analysis for all expenditures, the fact remains that the process by which a budget is formed is a fundamentally political, not scientific, endeavor. In the best of all worlds, we would have limitless funds to support all the wonderful things we want government to do. But the pie is only so large, and unless we find new revenue sources (er, raise taxes) additional funding for project A must come at the cost of other projects.

What is infrastructure worth to us as citizens? One economist in the audience cited statistics that investment in infrastructure pays back tenfold. Successful economies, he said, are built on strong infrastructure, including roads, sewers, telecom, and human capital.

The bridge collapse goes beyond any normal, understandable kind of governmental failure. When pavement deteriorates and our car suspensions wear out faster, we complain that government is not properly investing in maintaining the roads. When a bridge falls out into the Mississippi, killing a dozen or so people and forcing 140,000 cars to find alternate routes across the river, our reaction is a bit more intense: we are stunned by our government's failure. The initial question at tonight's meeting, as put by our moderator, was this: "What do people expect of government when it comes to our roads?" Perhaps the best answer came at the end, when one gentleman said this:

"People expect not to have to worry about bridges collapsing into the river."


Blogger Arthur Willoughby said...

It will be interesting to see what the cause of the collapse truly was. Was it bad inspections, bad construction, or did the company restoring the bridge park too many vehicles loaded with heavy materials on it?

I think people of all political stripes would agree that infrastructure is Job 1 of government. However, a rudimentary analysis of the state's budget over the past couple decades show that the amount spent on infrastructure is woefully low, far behind education and social services.

In that way, government has truly failed us, ignoring their primary responsibilities in order to try to please everyone and thus garner votes. Now a catastrophe occurs and their first response is to shake their fingers at us and tell us we don't pay enough.

That's insulting. City Pages did a cover story last week on who is to blame for the bridge. Nowhere on the list were publications like their own that for years have endorsed pissing away money on every social program known to man. Adding insult to injury is that at a time like this, they have no shame. The answer is invariably "more, more, more."

8:47 AM  
Blogger Generalissimo said...

Maintenance: The Final Frontier

Maybe this is why bridges are falling down?

The underlying problem with American infrastructure and the governance thereof relates directly to the almost blind, ingrained notion that in order to have progress we must always be building something new. This perspective is exacerbated by the fact that our society is a disposible society, which neglects to maintain what it already has in existence. Many would argue, and most unconsciously accept, that this position is what makes America uniquely prosperous.

The historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated this concept in his famous "Frontier Thesis" of 1893. Untamed land is the wellspring of economic abundance, he postulated. On a micro level, this translates into urban policy that promotes building anew instead of preserving and improving the old. Disasters are the poisoned fruit of such favortism.

We cannot expand and build forever without a parallel expansion of governmental services dedicated to maintenance. That means, well, the unattractive truth of more taxes. But we a are relucant bunch when it comes to taxes.

Lessons from the Old Guard

Heaven forbid we learn anything from the French...

When I lived and traveled overseas, in particular the U.K., France and Germany, I was highly impressed by the ability and dedication of those countries to maintain and upgrade exisiting infrastructure. German roads, for example, are not potted and falling apart. These well-maintained highways are not plagued by a lowest-bid system, which nearly insures that shoddy work will be done so that a contractor can maximize profits. The Brits have cleverly repurposed existing structures. Speaking of bridges, the French have applied creativity to harmonize the historic with new engineering innovations such as the incredible Viaduc de Millau.

9:47 AM  

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