Saturday, August 04, 2007

Quakes and Bridges

When I moved to California from Arizona many of my friends wanted to know why in the world I would want to live in a state that had all of those earthquakes. Well, after the news from Minneapolis, because of all of those earthquakes, that’s why.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which cost 62 lives, quite a few of those in a collapsed double-deck freeway in Oakland, the state embarked on a massive program of “retrofitting” our bridges to withstand quakes. Different methods were used on different bridges and, while it was costly and took quite a few years, it did provide a goodly number of rather high paying jobs and boosted the economy a bit. More on that later.

As a result of that program, even after the I-35W bridge collapse, I can be pretty sure than when I’m driving across a bridge here in California the damned thing is not going to fall down.

After reading about infrastructure in this country in general, though, in articles prompted by the I-35W bridge event, I’m sort of freaking out. Has this country become completely and irretrievably incompetent?

That bridge scored 50 of a possible 100 two years ago on a safety check, which apparently means, “This bridge is okay, don’t worry about it.” If my car scores 50 out of a possible 100 on a safety check, I park that sucker. I do not drive that piece of junk down the freeway at 75 mph in the blissful opinion that it is perfectly safe. If my car scores less than 100 out of 100 on a safety check, I make repairs to it until it scores 100. If finances are really tight I might drive it with a 90 score, but I would slow down. But driving it full speed with a 50 score?

Of bridges that are as heavily traveled as the I-35W bridge, carrying 190,000 vehicles per day or more, 40 bridges had a score lower than 50, lower than the bridge that just collapsed, and are still open to traffic as I write this.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has produced a report card for our nation’s infrastructure which is horrifying in its detailed descriptions of just how badly this nation is crumbling and the degree to which we are degrading and polluting our environment in the process. Since we’re on the subject of bridges at the moment, ASCE reports that 27% of our bridges are rated as poorly as the I-35W bridge or worse, and that it will require $9.4 Billion per year for 20 years to repair them. That’s $188 Billion total.

But there’s worse news. Bridges aren’t our worst grade. In fact, they are second best. (Other than an “incomplete” for Security.) ASCE gives us a C+ for solid waste disposal, a C for bridges, C- for rail and parks/recreation and D or worse for everything else.

Not only are the grades failing, they are dropping. The report card provides grades for 2001 and 2005, and in virtually every case the grade for 2005 is lower. The relationship between crumbling infrastructure and low tax rates at all levels of government is, of course, inescapable.

It remains unproven to me that the people in this nation are actually all that averse to taxation. Clearly politicians are, with one party advocating lower taxes because that is their ideology, and the other because they lack the courage to refute the ideology of the opponent. But when both parties are advocating lower taxes the actual will of the people is, I believe, unclear.

The purpose of government is, among other things, to provide for the common welfare. A small government cannot provide for a large nation, and I suspect that the public at large is willing to accept that. I keep coming back to the one poll which has actually offered that choice, one which showed that a sizeable majority favored universal healthcare even if it meant higher taxes.

California, home of nuts and crackpots, tends to lead the way and sometimes the rest of the country sees that what we are doing here actually makes good sense. Maybe they will this time.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake California recognized an infrastructure need. State government and the people of this state worked together with bonds and taxes to get that need met. In the process the necessary higher taxes got passed back to the people in the form of high paying jobs and a vibrant economy boosted, in part, by those jobs.

And we have bridges we can drive across in safety.

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