A Catastrophe In The Making

President Trump has indicated that trying to get Congress to pass a bill to fund meaningful restoration of America’s infrastructure is one of the top priorities of his second year in office, and political pundits say there may just be a bipartisan consensus to do just that.

It’s long overdue.

penn-stationIf you don’t think the nation’s infrastructure needs immediate attention, read this Bloomberg article on the condition of the tunnels leading into Penn Station, one of the country’s busiest rail junctions.  It’s terrifying, because it indicates that one of these days the crumbling, 107-year-old tunnels — that’s right, 107 years old! — could give, causing the Hudson River to flood the tunnels and the station itself.  It’s hard to imagine what the toll of such an event would be.  And anyone who has been through Penn Station recently will tell you that the place is an overcrowded, smelly, appalling dump.  I went through the station recently, and I’ll never use it again.  When Candidate Trump was talking about the nation’s Third World infrastructure, he was talking about our airports, but he just as easily could have included Penn Station.

Penn Station isn’t alone.  In every major city, you could identify bridges, highways, and tunnels that are in desperate need of attention.  So, will our state and local governments actually tackle this infrastructure challenge?  And, if we do, will we do it in a way that makes sense, rather than having legislation that becomes a Christmas tree, with every Congressman and Senator and state representative insisting that their pet projects get funded in the name of infrastructure reform, so that the big problems — like Penn Station — end up getting deferred while other, less pressing construction projects like Boston’s “Big Dig” are funded to the tune of billions of dollars.  According to the article linked above, the Trump Administration has backed away from an Obama Administration commitment to fund half the cost of a new tunnel, with New Jersey and New York funding the remainder.  It’s not clear whether the Trump Administration thought it was a bad deal for the federal government and New York and New Jersey should foot more of the bill, or whether it concluded that a new tunnel isn’t the best approach from an environmental, traffic management, or resource allocation standpoint, or whether it found some other perceived problem with the plans.  Whatever the reason, nothing is happening.

In the meantime, Penn Station and its tunnels continue to deteriorate, thousands of Amtrak customers whose train trips are subsidized by taxpayers flood into the station, and a harrowing disaster looms right around the corner.  And the crucial question remains:  if we can’t take care of the basics like our infrastructure, can we really be said to have a responsible government?  And why are we spending money on things like “Click It or Ticket” ad campaigns instead?  As a country, we need to get our priorities in order.


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.


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.

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.