Friday, August 03, 2007

Fixing it first

When I worked briefly in state government, one of the proudest accomplishments was what we didn't do. Under Governor Mitt Romney's "Fix it First" policy, what we didn't do was build new highways and interchanges and new bridges and the like -- not a single new lane mile in Massachusetts over four years. (The unfortunate reconfiguration of the Sagamore rotary, the gateway to Cape Cod, was the closest the administration got to this very common indulgence). Instead, Romney, a Republican now running for president, had a different priority: making sure that existing infrastructure was in a state of good repair. By definition that meant stuff that was in and around existing cities. Ed Rendell and Jennifer Granholm, governors of Pennsylvania and Michigan respectively, had similar policies. It is one of the most solid tenets of smart growth -- the makeovers make cities and older suburbs more liveable and functional, while sprawl-enabling highway construction is limited. In Massachusetts, when the engineers looked around and checked out what needed fixing up, the list was sobering. If the Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge over the Charles River doesn't get a $60 million restoration, it could crumble in stages like an unstable sand castle. One engineer said his official assessment was that the Storrow Drive tunnel absolutely will fail within five years, but his unofficial view was that it could cave in any day now. Even with an affirmative policy to fix it first, scores of bridges are deficient. All of this is relevant, of course, after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. We don't know what happened -- the span was deemed deficient but passed inspection; cracking from fatigue is suspected. Maintenance is never a sexy thing for politicans, but one report suggests that $9 billion a year is needed to address aging infrastructure, over four times more than what is being spent now. Money is still getting poured into new highways out into the cornfields. Maybe the tragedy will make that kind of highway and bridge construction a bit more shameful (see the bridge to nowhere, courtesy of Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens from Alaska). The Minneapolis bridge collapse came after a weekend spent in Amagansett on Long Island, which featured power outages and brownouts the days we were there. The Gucci storefront went dark and the pinot grigio warmed. It all gives one a creepy sense of being on borrowed time.
p.s. I have been trying to post more regularly but have been deterred in recent weeks because Google, new owner of Blogger, gave me no way to sign in. I'm a Google fan generally, but not when this champion of freedom of information freezes me out of my own blog.