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.

Armed Travelers In An Armed Nation

In 2016 the Transportation Security Administration found 3,391 guns being carried by passengers going through airport security checkpoints.  That’s a new record, and represents a 30 percent increase over the number of guns found in 2015.

Oh, yeah . . . and 83 percent of the guns found at checkpoints were loaded.

art-tsa-checkpoint-afp-giOf course, as a percentage of the millions of people taking flights from United States airports — the TSA screened 738 million passengers last year — 3,391 obviously isn’t a big number.  Still, it’s a surprising statistic, and disconcerting to those of us who travel frequently for business and pleasure.

Since airport checkpoints became ubiquitous after 9/11, any cognizant person has got to know that you can’t carry guns and ammunitions onto planes.  Can thousands of people really be unaware of this rule, or are those people just testing to see whether it’s actually enforced?  The story linked above suggests that at least some of the apprehended travelers claim that they did not intend to carry the guns found at checkpoints — that they simply grabbed a piece of carry-on luggage without checking to see whether it included a gun.  That seems wildly implausible to me.  Can people actually not be acutely aware of where they are storing loaded firearms in their homes, would they really not hear or feel a gun rattling around when they retrieved a suitcase from the closet, and wouldn’t they find the gun during the process of packing?

The recent shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport baggage claim area by a guy who apparently had a gun in his checked-in luggage is scary precisely because airports are, by definition, impersonal public places where you’re surrounded by total strangers whose intentions are completely unknown to you.  It’s bad enough to think that the person next to you at the luggage carousel might pull out a Glock and start blasting, but in some ways it’s even worse to think that thousands of fellow travelers are so stupid or careless that they are trying to bring loaded guns through the TSA checkpoints.

Peanuts Envy

Should people who have peanut allergies be permitted to pre-board airplanes, along with the folks in wheelchairs?

That’s the subject of a complaint filed last week with the Department of Transportation by Food Allergy Research and Education (“FARE”), a group that advocates on behalf of people with food-borne allergies.  It alleges that American Airlines is breaking the law and discriminating against those who have adverse physical reactions when exposed to peanuts by not accommodating them and allowing them to pre-board with others.

90634998-280x186For its part, American Airlines — which doesn’t serve those little bags of peanuts to its passengers, incidentally — notes that it limits pre-boarding to people with physical disabilities that require them to get assistance in making it down the jet bridge and into their seats.  AA states that its planes are cleaned regularly, but the cleaning efforts, and for that matter the air filtration systems on the planes, are not designed to remove all traces of nut allergens. The airline states that it cannot establish “nut-free zones” on its planes, and it does not prevent other passengers from bringing nuts on board.

FARE contends that people with peanut allergies, and those who are traveling with them, should be permitted to pre-board so they can wipe down the seats, armrests, and trays, or even cover them.  It notes that, unlike American Airlines, Delta allows peanut allergy sufferers to pre-board upon request.

It’s one of those weird issues that seem to crop up more and more in the modern world.  There’s no doubt that people who have peanut allergies can have severe reactions when exposed, up to and including going into anaphylactic shock.  At the same time, it doesn’t seem like people with peanut allergies really need pre-boarding to the same extent that, for example, people in wheelchairs do.  People with peanut allergies don’t require physical assistance, and even if they need to wipe down their seats, there seems to be no reason why that can’t be done when they board with everyone else, as part of the settling-in process that inevitably occurs when people board planes.

If people with peanut allergies can pre-board, doesn’t that open up pre-boarding to people with other conditions who could plausibly claim they should be accommodated, too?  People with fear of crowds, for example, could argue that they shouldn’t be required to wait in the packed-in throng on the jet bridge, which could provoke an anxiety attack.  And peanut allergy pre-boarding seems to open the door to potential abuse, because airlines have no way of knowing whether someone who claims to have an allergy really does.  Speaking as someone who has seen fellow travelers push the envelope on carry-on items and in jostling for early boarding, I’m guessing that if FARE prevails on its complaint we’re going to see a huge spike in claimed peanut allergies.

Around Ghost Ranch

It’s not hard to see why Georgia O’Keeffe felt that the countryside around Ghost Ranch, in northern New Mexico, spoke to her.  With its stark shapes, interesting geological formations, and colors that used just about every pigment In Mother Nature’s pallet, Ghost Ranch on a sunny day is a feast for the senses.

On The Trail To Chimney Rock

Yesterday we drove over to Ghost Ranch — Georgia O’Keeffe’s old stomping grounds — and hiked up to the top of Chimney Rock butte.  It’s about a three-mile hike, round trip, heading up and then scrambling down more than 600 feet.


The trail is classified as easy to moderate, but it was complicated significantly by a lot of mud and some icy patches.  Fortunately, the welcome center offers walking sticks, and we took them up on their offer.  The walking sticks came in handy as we navigated the trail switchbacks and tried to avoid spills on the icy sections.


The last section of the hike was especially steep and icy, but once we reached the top the view made the hard work all worthwhile.  The butte is an outcropping that gives a commanding view of the surrounding countryside.  We felt we could see for miles.  The views on the way back down weren’t bad, either.

At Carlsbad Caverns

Yesterday we visited the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  It’s located in a remote area near the southern border of New Mexico, so it takes an effort to get there.  We made a five-hour drive from Santa Fe to reach it — but it was definitely worth it.


We took the natural entrance to the cave, which requires you to walk down a steep series of switchbacks and drop hundreds of feet into the mouth of the cave.  (It’s easily doable, but if you’re queasy about heights, be sure to stick to the inside of the switchbacks.)  Once you leave the last rays of natural light, in the area shown above, you find yourself in a dimly lit fantasy land of astonishing rock formations ranging from the delicate, like the Doll’s Theater shown at the top of this post, to massive stalactites and stalagmites. 


And when you reach the Big Room, a colossal underground opening where the fabulous creations of nature are found around every corner, be prepared to spend some time just shaking your head in wonderment at it all.  Words can’t begin to describe it, and photos taken with a cell phone can’t really begin to capture the scale and intricacy and vastness of it all.  I’ve posted some photos merely to give an idea of what you’ll see on a visit, but understand that they convey only a tiny fraction of what it is like to be there.


And, after a time, a certain hush seems to fall over it all.  Even rambunctious kids begin to talk in whispers as they walking along the path, and there’s not much need for shushing rangers, either.  Standing in the cool dimness — the Caverns maintain a constant temperature in the 50s– with the vaulted ceiling far above, and towering statuary-like figures everywhere you look, the experience is like being in a gothic cathedral . . . and who is loud in a church?


The Carlsbad Caverns are a world heritage site, drawing visitors from across the globe, and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s got to be one of the most spectacular bits of natural beauty you can find anywhere, as jaw-dropping in its way as the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef.  

Encino

We drove through Encino, New Mexico on our way to the Carlsbad Caverns.  Encino looks like it has fallen on hard times, and this ramshackle house, just about to collapse, seemed to characterize the town as a whole.  The house was so memorable on the way down that I was determined to take its photo on the trip back — and was happy to catch it during the magic hour just before sunset.