A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.

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.

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

Cincinnati’s Roebling Suspension Bridge

Among other things, Cincinnati can boast of a very cool suspension bridge:  the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge that crosses the Ohio River between downtown Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky.

Roebling designed the bridge, which opened in 1867.  His name may be familiar, because he also designed the Brooklyn Bridge.  At the time Roebling finished his span across the Ohio River, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world.

The Roebling Suspension Bridge is a beautiful, elegant part of downtown Cincinnati, with its graceful lines and gold-topped stone arches that have been darkened by time.  Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get to the bridge.  You have to cross a highway, pass the Great American Ballpark and the Underground Railroad Museum, navigate some construction sites and vacant parking lots, and keep an eye out for sketchy-looking characters.  Although we made it to the bridge, we couldn’t figure out how to get down to the banks of the Ohio River itself.

For an historic river town, Cincinnati doesn’t really do much to make the Ohio River an accessible part of its downtown area.

The Graceful Beauty Of A Colossal Bridge

In my stroll through the Flats area of Cleveland early Wednesday morning, I was struck by this view of the shoreway bridge spanning the Cuyahoga River and the gravel yards and industrial facilities along the riverbed.  The bridge, which has been painted bright blue, is a gigantic construct when viewed from below, but it nevertheless has a kind of graceful, spidery beauty as it curves away into the distance far overhead.

Bridges and other well-designed forms of municipal infrastructure can be as artistic and lovely as the most high-priced piece of public art.

Love Locks

The view from the Pont des Arts toward the Ile de la Cite

The Pont des Arts is a wood-slatted pedestrian bridge across the Seine with a short chain-link fence and hand rail on each side.  It runs from the Louvre on the right bank to the Institute de France on the left bank and offers a splendid view of the tip of the Ile de la Cite.  It is a peaceful pleasure to stroll across this simple bridge, without having to hear traffic rushing past as is the case with other bridges across the river.

As Richard and I walked across the Pont des Arts today, I realized that there were thousands of locks attached to the chain-link fencing.  When I examined them more closely, I saw that they were locks of all shapes and sizes and colors — padlocks, bicycle chain locks, bar locks, and combination locks — and on each lock a couple had written their names.  Apparently the tradition is that the couple puts their names on a lock, affixes the lock to the fence, and then throws the key into the water, so that their names and the memories of their trip remain part of Paris forever.

It’s a cool tradition — and probably a smart one for the Paris tourist industry, too, because I imagine many couples return to Paris several years later to see whether their lock is still on the bridge.  Richard says there is a similar “love lock” bridge in Italy.

I don’t think this bridge existed when Kish and I visited Paris in in 1992.  In any case, we never got a chance to put a lock on the bridge.  Skipper, we will have to come and put our lock on the Pont des Arts someday soon!

At The Water’s Edge

Paris started as a city on an island in the middle of the Seine River, and the river has always been important part of the city and its charms.

Our view from the tip of the Ile St. Louis

Richard and I have taken several walks along the river banks.  You get a wonderful perspective on the city from the water’s edge.  In those areas where there are quays along the water, you find many people sitting, picknicking, and lounging, dangling their feet over the edge and enjoying a sunny spring day.  (Surprisingly to us Americans, where prospective tort liability has caused the landscape to be littered with fences, barricades, and warning signs, there are no railings at the water’s edge.)

Although there are some working boats on the river, the water traffic is mostly tourist boats that make several stops on the journey from the Ile St. Louis to the Eiffel Tower.

The quays also are a good way to get from point A to point B quickly and pleasantly.  Richard and I made very good time walking from the Ile de la Cite to the Musee d’Orsay along the waterfront.  If you walk along the quays, you avoid the traffic light at crossing streets and you don’t encounter nearly as many fellow walkers.  You also see things that other might miss — like the classic carved heads that line the underside of one of the older bridges crossing the Seine.