Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Like a Troubled Bridge Over Waters

As a guy there a few things I can't help but love. Most of them are big, ostentatious and out of the realm of my understanding, but I love them anyway. These things: Skyscrapers, huge ships, hydroelectric dams and Bridges are regularly the stars of the show on networks like the Discovery Channel or TLC and it's no surprise that most guys can't help but watch these shows. I marvel at the wealth of knowledge, planning and balls it takes to bring one of these items to life. There was a time that a project like a mammoth ship, a super high building or a really long bridge brought out the best in America, but I'm afraid those days are passing us by.

Sure, we still make the big, kick ass aircraft carriers but that's just because our government always wants to spend billions on weapons of war. They also go above and beyond when building tanks, missiles, planes and ships, in an effort to make sure that they will be viable for years to come. The same can't be said for a lot of the other "guy things" on my above list. It's been almost 7 years since the twin towers came down and we still have no progress on replacing them. Likewise, we bitch and moan about energy prices and bandy about plans involving digging in the ground for yesterdays source (oil) rather than building new and inventive solutions, like wind farms or new dams.

All those short comings aside, the biggest failing of our government is in our once proud infrastructure. As we spread like a growing fire across this country we did an amazing job of building roads, bridges and tunnels to accommodate the people and industry who were relocating to previously underused parts or our land. But, somewhere along the line, we stopped updating and augmenting those projects and have allowed many of the shining stars of our highway system to begin to succumb to old age, tragically taking lives with them in the process.

One year ago, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed killing 13 people, and just last week an apparently immature teen caused a wreck on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge that sent a truck over the side of the bridge, killing the driver. These two incidents represent two different sides of the problem, one involving the aggressive over use of old infrastructure and the other involving user error, but they are both driven by the same root problem: poor planing and management due to bad government regardless of party.

Ask a Maryland resident if they want a new bridge (or a tunnel) and they are bound to say yes, but only if it doesn't cause their taxes to go up. And so, most candidates for Governor will shy away from roads projects that would involve any kind of tax burden. Tolls can offset a bond used to pay for the project, but budget money would still have to be found and not many politicians have the balls to look at their constituents and say: "this is money we need to spend" and then get the job done.

Even if the government can get the project under way, they rarely have the foresight to do it right the first time. When the first Bay Bridge was built in 1952 is was to take the place of the ferry service previously used and so it was only built 2 lanes wide. Once the bridge opened the door to vacationers from DC and Baltimore, some started to stay, and the bridge was quickly too small to keep up with demand. So, it was decided that a second bridge would be needed, but rather than just make another 2 land structure, they had to go bigger right? Well they did: one lane bigger. The 3 lane "Westbound" bridge was opened in 1972 and it wasn't too long before it was also swamped with more traffic then it could handle. Poor planing and lack of vision brought us to were we are right now.

It's not as if no one can get it right. There are bridges and highways aplenty across the world that were built to accommodate more traffic than the roadway had at the time of construction. One such bridge just so happens to be one of my favorites of all time: the Sydney Harbour Bridge, pictured at the start of this post. It has 8 lanes for car traffic, two lanes for railway traffic and two pedestrian walkways. All this bridge (which is 161 feet across as compared to 38 feet for the larger Bay Bridge) was finished amid political turmoil in 1932.

There was no need for 8 lanes of traffic in '32 but the designer John Bradfield knew it had to be much bigger than was needed because when people see a bridge: they tend to cross it. Some of them find a home on the other side and begin to cross it every day, to and from work. When the Harbour Bridge began to take on more use than engineers thought it should, they built a tunnel to augment it and it all flows quite nicely.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could still get shit done in this country. The only thing we manufacture any longer is celebrity, and the only thing we build is our own sense of self worth. It's sad, really.


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