Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Fixing What's Broke—or About To Be

At this writing, four people are known dead and eight missing in the collapse of the eight-lane freeway bridge that carried I-35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. A little after 6 PM last Wednesday, the bridge simply fell down in stages, as caught on a security camera video. We won't know for sure why it fell until months later, after engineers have studied the wreckage and pieced together the sequence of events that led to the disaster. Initial speculation has centered on corrosion and fatigue cracking, together with possible overloading in the bridge's weakened condition by construction equipment assembled at one end. Whatever the cause, it seems to be accidental rather than intentional. But that doesn't bring back the dozen or so people who died, the dozens more injured, and the millions inconvenienced by the sudden disappearance of an essential piece of Minneapolis's transportation system.

Most discussions of engineering ethics center on decisions that an individual engineer makes—whether to sign off on a doubtful drawing, whom to consider when designing a new product, those sorts of things. But if we think about right and wrong and technology in connection with great projects and large institutions, you get into the realm of what someone has called "macro" engineering ethics, as opposed to the "micro" ethics of individual decisions. Governments and institutions, and whole populations, can do the right thing or the wrong thing as well as individuals. The case of the Minneapolis bridge is a sign that a long-deferred problem of macro-engineering ethics is coming home to roost.

This problem has the dull-sounding name of "deferred maintenance on infrastructure." Infrastructure means the whole network of generally public services that make a city pleasant and livable, or by their absence, almost intolerable. Infrastructure helps makes New York City a fun place to visit, even without a car. Lack of basic infrastructure, such as electric and water utilities and trash pickup, is one thing that makes life in Baghdad so miserable these days. In the United States, local, state, and federal governments have historically taken the responsibility for most of our infrastructure, dating back at least to the early twentieth century. Where private companies were involved, as in telecommunications and electric utilities, they were regulated to such an extent that they could almost be regarded as branches of government. In such an environment, technology did not advance perhaps as rapidly as it could have. But reliability and safety were paramount, and by and large these goals were achieved in an exemplary way. For the three or four decades after World War II, America's infrastructure was the envy of the world. And it was built and maintained largely either by governments or under government supervision. That is not a political statement. It is a statement of fact.

Came the 1980s, and Ronald Reagan in the U. S. and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain urged a more privatized libertarian vision for the future. I heartily endorse some aspects of this movement toward classical liberalism, which is now known as conservatism. And in many respects, this political movement was needed to correct for some socialistic excesses. But since then, privatization and a libertarian, individualistic philosophy have been taken by some to an extreme that is both unrealistic and harmful in the context of our present situation. Let me explain.

The May 7, 2007 issue of Business Week magazine carried a long article called "Roads to Riches," describing how the new private capital market in formerly public works is growing by leaps and bounds. All over the country, private investor groups are snatching up toll roads, bridges, water utilities, and other large chunks of infrastructure from cities and states that are strapped for cash. In many cases, they are strapped for cash because the voters will not put up with higher taxes. When they do get money in these deals, governments tend to spend it on things that the voters see and like, such as poverty programs, education, and so on. My paycheck for teaching comes from Texas state taxes, and so I would not be expected to criticize this way of spending overmuch. But to sell infrastructure to the highest bidder and spend the proceeds on other things is to ignore statistics such as one we have heard over and over again since last Wednesday's bridge collapse: the American Society of Civil Engineers says that over a fourth of the nation's bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Infrastructure is a long-term thing. Unlike budgets, fads, and politicians, bridges and roads and power lines are meant to stay around for ten, twenty, or forty years. But not forever. Just like any other engineered product, these things have an estimated life span that assumes they will be properly maintained during that time and will be replaced before they wear out. Either somebody (public or private) pays for fixing and maintaining them and eventually replacing them, and you have decent infrastructure during that time; or else you spend the money somewhere else and the infrastructure begins to come apart, as the Minneapolis bridge did spectacularly last week. There is no third alternative.

I hope some good will come of this tragedy in the form of a renewed intelligent and productive discussion about how we should pay for keeping up our infrastructure in this country. Free-market zealots who believe in privatizing everything should visit Lagos, Nigeria, which in some ways is a libertarian's paradise. If you want electricity, you buy your own generator and run it yourself. If you want water, you build your own rainwater collection system or you buy water on the free market from a water wagon. If you want to know if the water's clean, you test it yourself. As a result, Lagos is polluted by the exhaust and noise of thousands of generators and awash with the stench of untreated sewage.

Of course, putting government in control of everything doesn't solve all the problems either—the old Soviet Union and its satellites such as East Germany and Cuba showed that. What is needed is a sense of community, a sense that if I pay reasonable taxes, even if they are higher than last year, they will be spent on all that dull stuff such as bridge repair that I can't do myself, but which I want to benefit from. That sort of thing was traditionally seen as the proper province of government. Maybe private companies would do as well or better, but I have my doubts. Private or public, we need teams of people of good will who have the public's good at heart—not next quarter's stock market figures, not some ideological principle that sounds good on paper, but simple good will. And maybe that's what we're missing the most.

Sources: The American Society of Civil Engineers maintains a national "report card" on state-by-state infrastructure problems, which can be viewed at http://www.asce.org/reportcard/2005/index.cfm.

1 comment:

  1. A very sensible look at the problems we have maintaining our infrastructure. It is a big problem today and can only get worse as time goes on and our existing infrastructure ages.
    I do however feel that you are doing a disservice to the private sector. The public sector is as dominated by finances as the private sector, the source of the money for the public sector is however political rather than based on profit and loss or the financial market. Safety and maintenance is only a big issue for the public sector when it is a high political priority, at other times it can be a lower priority for the public sector than the private sector.
    The key to solving these problems is to have systems where it neither financially nor politically viable to make short terms decisions at the expense of long term gains. This is however a common problem with so many of our deep rooted problems in the world today.