Infrastructure Insecurity

Every morning on my way to work I cross over the combined roar of the I-70/I-71 traffic on the Third Street bridge.  I use the same bridge to get home at night.  The bridge is a key part of my commute because it is one of the few avenues for pedestrian traffic from German Village and the south side into downtown Columbus.

img_5527.jpgOn Monday, I noticed that part of the bridge was blocked off by yellow construction tape and some skinny orange cones.  When I went over to investigate this development, I saw that chunks of the bridge appeared to have fallen off.  A glance suggested that, with one ill-timed stumble, a luckless walker could go pitching through the gap and tumbling down the hillside to the traffic stream below.

Yikes!

Since that close examination, I’ve given the orange cone area the widest berth the sidewalk will allow.  And, because you can’t help but think on a walk, I find myself wondering about what the problem with one part of the bridge means for the structural integrity of the bridge as a whole.  What if the bridge started to crumble just as I am walking across?

Double Yikes!

That thought has helped me to pick up the pace on my morning walks.  But I’ll be very relieved when this personal, visible, and unsettling reminder of our national infrastructure problem gets fixed.

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The Bridge Report

It’s not just gigantic dams and spillways that we need to worry about.  Those of us who regularly use the nation’s interstate highway system should be thinking about whether that bridge that our car is rolling across is safe, too — because a recently released report has concluded that thousands of our bridges are structurally deficient.

Lines of cars are pictured during a rush hour traffic jam on GuoOK, perhaps we should read this report with a healthy grain of salt, because the source is the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.  Getting a report from the ARTBA about whether more bridge repair and construction projects should be funded is like getting a restaurant review from the head chef — you’ve got to think that there’s a bit of self-interest lurking in there somewhere.

Still, the report is based on Department of Transportation data, which scores all bridges on a nine-point scale.  Here’s an amazing statistic:  173,919 of the bridges in the U.S. — more than one in four — are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work.  I know they built things well back in the ’50s and ’60s, but 50 years of carrying increasing loads of cars and trucks over rivers and inlet and gorges, without an overhaul, seems like an extremely long time.  The report also concludes that more than 55,000 bridges in America are structurally deficient and 13,000 bridges on our interstates need to be replaced, widened, or repaired.

So, our interstate highway system needs work — and by the way we need to figure out how to fund that work, because the increasing fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks means that the gas tax is producing less revenue than expected.  And we need to get local and state governments, who haven’t been carrying their share of the maintenance load, off the dime, too.

I’m sure I’ve driven over dozens of the bridges on the ARTBA’s “deficient bridges” list, without being aware of the structural deficiency issues.  Let’s hope that people pay some attention to this particular area of infrastructure need, before we have another catastrophic bridge collapse that finally spurs people into doing what they should have been doing for years now.

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Nashville Dans La Nuit


For a city located smack dab in the midst of middle America, Nashville is pretty damned cool.  In addition to the music scene, which you probably knew about already, Nashville has some great bridges.  The footbridge from the Bridge Building over the Cumberland to downtown not only affords you an excellent view of other bridges, it also is a striking bridge in its own right.

American cities would do well to turn all unused railroad bridges into pedestrian footpaths.  They’re irresistible.

Like An Erector Set Writ Large

IMG_6025In downtown Cleveland they are slowly tearing down one of the colossal bridges that spans the Flats.  The steel girder skeleton has now been exposed, and it looks exactly like something we would build during childhood with an erector set.

It’s interesting to see the disassembly process, but a bit unnerving, too.  The criss-crossing pieces of steel look very flimsy and delicate when they are laid bare, and it’s hard to imagine they bore so much weight for so long.

The Flats

IMG_5406“The Flats.”  It’s been the name for the heavy industrial area around the Cuyahoga River, next to downtown Cleveland, since time immemorial.

“The Flats.”  The moniker is apt.  The topography is low and level, perfect for unloading barges and freighters and running railroad track to haul the ore and coal and other raw materials off to Lorain and Youngstown, Akron and Dayton.

IMG_5410It once must have been an extraordinary, crowded bustling place, one of the engines of the American industrial age, chock full of shouting men and whistles, pallets being hoisted into the sky and swung wide, carts and rail cars rolling ponderously past, pellets and cinders and smoke and dust.

“The Flats.”  It’s an area that has been squashed and crushed by countless heavy loads and heavy machines.  Now it’s been left prostrate and depressed by economic forces beyond its control, empty and desolate on a Sunday afternoon, with only seagulls circling overhead, crying out to the scudding clouds.

The Flats.  It’s still there, with its many special bridges that lift far above the water to allow the freighters to glide slowly by, its rusting railroad spurs, its loading areas and piles of slag and cracked, weedy concrete and brick and highway overpasses that loom far overhead.  It served before, and it could serve again.

If you want to get a sense of how the wheels of commerce turned back at the turn of the 20th century and how things have changed since those long ago days, the Flats is a good place to visit.IMG_5412