Borrowed time

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis puts the spotlight on the unsexy topic of infrastructure maintenance. But a smart growth policy, "Fix it First," has been focused in the area for some time. The policy, in place in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and for the last four years in Massachusetts, states that no new highways or bridges can be built until all existing infrastructure is in a state of good repair. Generally this meant stuff that was in and around existing cities; thus it's a smart growth policy, as 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. The Longfellow Bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge over the Charles River was scheduled for a $60 million restoration. The Storrow Drive tunnel must be fixed (one engineer said his official assessment was that the 50-year-old Beacon Hill/Back Bay tunnel absolutely will fail within five years, but his unofficial view was that it could cave in any day now). Doing this kind of maintenance is tedious, and even with the policy, scores of bridges are deficient. One study suggests we need to spend over four times the $2 billion currently set for infrastructure maintenance.

Most transportation money is still getting poured into new highways out into the cornfields. But 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). That would be overdue, especially because the system seems to be trying to tell us something. I was out in Amagansett on Long Island last weekend, and on Saturday there were power outages and brownouts, as the grid was overtaxed. Gucci went dark and the pinot grigio warmed. It gives one the sense of being on borrowed time.

Anthony Flint is director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts


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