America’s Crumbling Infrastructure?

Popular Mechanics has a frightening article on the sad state of American infrastructure today:

The fact is that Americans have been squandering the infrastructure legacy bequeathed to us by earlier generations. Like the spoiled offspring of well-off parents, we behave as though we have no idea what is required to sustain the quality of our daily lives. Our electricity comes to us via a decades-old system of power generators, transformers and transmission lines—a system that has utility executives holding their collective breath on every hot day in July and August. We once had a transportation system that was the envy of the world. Now we are better known for our congested highways, second-rate ports, third-rate passenger trains and a primitive air traffic control system. Many of the great public works projects of the 20th century—dams and canal locks, bridges and tunnels, aquifers and aqueducts, and even the Eisenhower interstate highway system—are at or beyond their designed life span.

In the end, investigators may find that there are unique and extraordinary reasons why the I-35W bridge failed. But the graphic images of buckled pavement, stranded vehicles, twisted girders and heroic rescuers are a reminder that infrastructure cannot be taken for granted. The blind eye that taxpayers and our elected officials have been turning to the imperative of maintaining and upgrading the critical foundations that underpin our lives is irrational and reckless.

Of course, the usual partisans will blame The Other Side™ (cue Nick Coleman to politicize this tragedy before the dead are even counted) — but the reality of the situation is that our political system as a whole has failed. Fixing infrastructure isn’t sexy — no Congressperson is going to get photographed standing on a newly-repaired bridge. It isn’t high-profile, it doesn’t increase the public stature of those involved, and it doesn’t make for good pork — therefore, it invariably gets neglected.

Worse of all, we’re losing the very capability to engineer tomorrow’s critical infrastructure. The US faces a shortage of trained engineers as our educational system continues to produce citizens who can barely balance their own checkbooks, no less calculate the stresses placed on a complex steel structure.

Instead of pointing fingers, we need to be fixing the problem. That means focusing on what matters, giving up pet projects over infrastructure repair, and ensuring that America has the engineering talent it needs to remain competitive in the 21st Century. We need to do these things not only because our country needs to have the engineers and builders necessary to compete in a global marketplace, but also because as yesterday’s tragedy demonstrates lives can be put at risk by a neglected infrastructure. We recently spent nearly $300 billion on transportation at the federal level, more than enough to massively upgrade our transportation infrastructure, yet the bill was laden will millions in unnecessary spending from both parties.

Now is not the time to politicize this crisis, but now is the time to start looking at solutions to prevent the next collapse before more lives are lost. Leaders of both parties need to understand that we have a crisis on our hands, and that crisis deserves more than promises of more spending, but real results that will ensure that a potentially preventable tragedy such as this does not happen again.

UPDATE: 2:42 PM: Searching along the collapse site has been suspended, and another piece of the decking has collapsed. It may be some time before the site is safe enough to extricate those still trapped under the water. We may not know the full death toll for some time, until the recovery personnel have had time to remove those cars still submerged in the murky and turbulent waters of the Mississippi.

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