The Empire Is Crumbling
July 4, 2019 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Rails, waterways, pipes, bridges, airports, electricity, even the internet – America is falling apart. (the Nib)
posted by The Whelk (57 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I crossed the border at Detroit a few years back and was shocked at the state of the I-275 highway between there and Columbus, OH. I've never seen potholes and whole stretches of tarmac deteriorated to gravel like that before.
posted by Quindar Beep at 9:39 AM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Capitalism no longer has any competition, and the banks have the ear of the government instead of industrial corporations. Japan's pork and corruption results in at least some infrastructure development, here it's just numbers in a bank account.
posted by MillMan at 10:05 AM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


The Roman Empire used its military to build infrastructure. Granted, their empire didn't come to a good end, but maybe along the way to ruin, ours could be repurposed to rebuilding the country's roads, etc., instead of fighting wars overseas or being put on display in DC.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:10 AM on July 4, 2019 [9 favorites]


Good idea. They could undertake large projects like canals, dams, and flood protection.
posted by zamboni at 10:22 AM on July 4, 2019 [12 favorites]


Yeah, the number of bridges behind on maintenance is at least a weekly, sometimes daily, thought.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:33 AM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Just think what could be done if the military could be repurposed to do that work, instead. Sorry I wasn't clear.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:33 AM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


The comic notes that the US has a D+ from the ASCE but also the 12th best in the world according to the World Economic Forum. It seems like a story of two metrics, though not one I'm willing to Google. Is global infrastructure so bad? How would the ASCE or other national organizations rank other countries?
posted by Going To Maine at 10:58 AM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Greer's Archdruid Report kept returning to this topic, which he called catabolic collapse - a cascading set of infrastructure failures because maintenance costs more than anyone wants to pay when it's not on the verge of collapse, and more than a society can afford once the collapsing starts.

In order to keep up with infrastructure, the government has to declare that it's going to spend millions maintaining roads and bridges that are working just fine, while people starve or die of illnesses or are otherwise stuck living in privation. And it's hard to get re-elected on a platform of, "I will make sure your grandchildren can still walk on this bridge" when people with full-time jobs are living on the streets.

Of course, refusing to tax businesses speeds up the process. So does subsidizing activities that damage infrastructure, and refusing to support those activities that can sustain it. But the core issue is that when a society gets very large and very complex, it's hard to convince people that they should be cold or hungry because there's a dam six counties away that needs half its cement replaced over the next 15 years.

It's a depressing set of thoughts, especially since there's no "solution;" it's just, "this is how empires collapse: decades of refusal to address the core problem, followed by endless small crises and patchwork fixes, followed by a whole lot of deaths of people who relied on the infrastructure that isn't there anymore, followed by, eventually, some measure of revolution and killing off everyone perceived to be responsible." Followed by, of course, some new government, vowing it will not repeat the mistakes of the old one.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:29 AM on July 4, 2019 [31 favorites]






We're in this mess because people don't understand how money is created. Congress should literally just blanket play for whatever the fuck needs fixing.
posted by odinsdream at 11:42 AM on July 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


I am not saying that the state of infrastructure isn't terrible and needs to be addressed but the ASCE has a pretty vested interest in saying that more maintenance needs to be done on infrastructure as its members will be the ones paid to do it.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:42 AM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


odinsdream: "GOVERNMENT DOESN'T CREATE JOBS!" they say. Tell that to 5,000+ people who built the Hoover Dam.
posted by SansPoint at 11:58 AM on July 4, 2019 [10 favorites]


a D+ from the ASCE but also the 12th best in the world according to the World Economic Forum. It seems like a story of two metrics

Or: We inherited superb infrastructure, are doing a D+ job of maintenance, and are currently sliding down through 12th place globally. Hundreds of places to go.

It's true that civil engineers have a vested interest, although they'd also get hired for the even more expensive job after something collapses, so it may not be a simple pro-repair bias. Plus also: we need trustworthy experts, and we need to trust them as well as verify their trustworthiness.

(Went looking: The ASCE's summary of their code of ethics, which was revised in 1976. Something interesting was happening - Layton's superb The Revolt of the Engineers was published in 1986. It's mostly about engineering ethics and expertise being suborned by scraps of managerial authority, but I guess it was itself part of the pushback against that. Any civil engineers here with the lore?)
posted by clew at 12:18 PM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


@GoingtoMaine: I'm a Civil Engineer heavily involved with maintenance and repair (vs new design). I'm super reluctant to make any political or economic commentary on this subject. Primarily because all my knowledge is technical and practical related to fixing bridges and stuff. In fact feel free to disregard this brief commentary because I'm paid to determine what needs fixing, how badly they need fixing, and how to fix them - not the policies resulting in me being paid to do those things.

But essentially I see that infrastructure report card as a political tool (note that afaik ASCE doesn't use words like "crumbing" - that's articles citing the report). It's intentionally deceptive in not being clear what their metric is. I don't have a problem with the idea of an infrastructure rating or their methodology or results or call into question the accuracy of any of it. But what I do kinda have a problem with is how public it is. I think without a good enough technical background people might not know how to interpret that information. Cost-benefit analysis is a huge component to repair but people outside of the practice probably have a skewed idea of the factors that are often involved.

And that disconnect is part of the problem, because you have politicians and such taking up roles in maintenance and repair and use rebuilding America as a talking point and "agree[ing] ... that American infrastructure is crumbling" without enough knowledge to make that evaluation. I see structures all the time that the average person would look at and think they're on the verge of collapse but actually they're structurally fine and it just looks scary.

How to bridge the gap between people with technical knowledge of fixing stuff and people determining the politics and methodology involved in fixing stuff I have no idea. I mean that's kinda why that report card exists in the first place. People leveraging their technical knowledge as a political tool. But it's important to keep in mind that it is a political tool.

OK that's enough for me I'll go back to patching up concrete
posted by ToddBurson at 12:20 PM on July 4, 2019 [27 favorites]


I am not American and I have little useful to add but I spent a couple months driving around the southern US two years ago, sleeping in a van. I was STAGGERED at the infrastructural decay, it was way, way worse than I ever expected.
posted by Twinge at 12:22 PM on July 4, 2019 [6 favorites]


The comic notes that the US has a D+ from the ASCE but also the 12th best in the world according to the World Economic Forum. It seems like a story of two metrics, though not one I'm willing to Google. Is global infrastructure so bad? How would the ASCE or other national organizations rank other countries?

Actually, now the US ranks 9th in infrastructure! It seemed strange to me, so I looked at the methodology section, and these parts jumped out at me:
2.05 Quality of air transport infrastructure
2.06 Available airline seat kilometers*
and
2.08 Mobile telephone subscriptions*  ½
2.09 Fixed telephone lines*  ½

A lot of countries with far superior infrastructure to the US are less dependent on air transport, because they have bullet trains and other means of fast efficient land transport. So depending on how these things are weighted, the US might get a better rating from more access to air traffic.
Same with phones. If they are weighting fixed lines with half, a lot of countries where fixed lines are practically gone will come in worse than the US, where there are still relatively large areas with imperfect mobile coverage.
There may be other aspects of the research that need updating.

TLDR: maybe the WEF need to update their methodology to fit contemporary technology.
posted by mumimor at 12:25 PM on July 4, 2019 [11 favorites]


Oo, interesting, mumimor. I wonder if it would be more humane/less gameable to measure access to the things infrastructure provides -- mean and median time to all the national big cities? access to and cost of conversation throughout the country? Something like isochrone maps averaged over the whole population. (Which is also political.)
posted by clew at 12:46 PM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Anecdotal, but my wife, who is from Argentina, which itself has seen better days, was shocked the first time we went to the USA at how everything to do with infrastructure - roads, trains etc - looked like it was falling apart. Now we live in Europe and everytime we go to visit family in the USA, it's shocking. Even in Spain where we live, which is supposed to be relatively worse off, roads and highways aren't falling apart, trains are fairly clean and run on time, phone and internet coverage is faster and cheaper....
posted by conifer at 1:06 PM on July 4, 2019 [11 favorites]


Even in Spain where we live, which is supposed to be relatively worse off, roads and highways aren't falling apart

Just back from Greece, where part of my time was spent driving on both major highways and back roads. Same experience there.
posted by gimonca at 1:52 PM on July 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


clew, that map is beautiful!
posted by mumimor at 2:04 PM on July 4, 2019


But the core issue is that when a society gets very large and very complex, it's hard to convince people that they should be cold or hungry because there's a dam six counties away that needs half its cement replaced over the next 15 years.

and yet if you tell them that we need to spend twice as much money bombing people on the other side of the world, suddenly they're all for it

what you're presenting is a false choice while the real choice continues to corrupt our country and the world
posted by pyramid termite at 2:04 PM on July 4, 2019 [22 favorites]


Also, dams and roads are what keep billions of people warm and fed, pretty directly. I really really hope there's a more intensive, less extractive agriculture that will allow technological civilization to continue, but for MILLENNIA we have needed dams and roads to get food to people and that's not likely to change.
posted by clew at 2:14 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?

This is not a trick or joke question. It's more of a Socratian question. More than half of the world outside the US has public facilities like infrastructure and healthcare, payed by taxes; Mexico and Canada are among them. In the rest of the world, a practical, functioning society is not a partisan issue (it may be an issue of corruption and authoritarianism, though). And yet these relatively simple tasks seem impossible to solve for current Americans, in the richest country in the world. There are so many philosophical questions imbedded in the first one.
I love America, and happy birthday everyone, but some things are really maddening. How can you have the biggest military and the slowest trains?
When my dad was dying, he gave me an autobiography by President Eisenhower, it was an informal book, not one of the official tomes, and I haven't been able to find it online. But it presented an entirely different version of America than the post-Reagan one we know today. Building infrastructure, as part of building a better life for every single American was the heart and soul of Ike's self-presentation. Reading that book reminded me of the bad Reagan had done to America.

Sorry for the rant, I think it's the concentration camps that are getting to me. I know very well none of you MeFites are responsible for the current mess, and I know the US is much more than the current rulers.
posted by mumimor at 2:29 PM on July 4, 2019 [41 favorites]


It's as baffling to us on the inside, mumimor. It seems absolutely absurd that we can't accomplish fucking basic-ass shit like keeping bridges from literally falling apart. Honestly, I don't know what to do, as a constituent in such a system, other than shout as loudly as I can.
posted by odinsdream at 2:35 PM on July 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


I am not American and I have little useful to add but I spent a couple months driving around the southern US two years ago, sleeping in a van. I was STAGGERED at the infrastructural decay, it was way, way worse than I ever expected.

The roads are shocking. I live in Ohio and I assumed things were falling apart here because we are experiencing way more freeze-thaw cycles in the winter with the changing climate, but I recently took a road trip to Atlanta and back and now I don't know.

- The interstate in Tennessee is brutal. Not talking potholes (plenty of those though), just ... the surface level of asphalt is half-gone in many areas. I can't overemphasize how shocking I found it.

- I drove through Buckhead in Atlanta, streets lined with multi-million dollar houses (southern Beverly Hills basically) and it felt like I was off roading in places.

Meanwhile, back here in Columbus the potholes eat your car all year round now. I truly feel like something has changed just in the past 10 years.
posted by imabanana at 2:43 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?

So that’s a very broad question, and I don’t particularly feel comfortable speaking for the whole of the country on this one -to say nothing of the fact that the portion of the population that actually can speak on these issues in academic, professional, media or political circles is quite small.) But...
  • When I see a pothole, or a damaged bridge, I don’t default to thinking “Man! They don’t have damaged bridges in Canada / Germany / Kenya / wherever.” When I heard about a dam in bad shape, I don’t think “They’ve really got flawless dams in Egypt! Why don’t we have those?” I don’t think of other countries at all - heck, I don’t even think about other states. Other countries only factor into my perception when it intersects my work, or I see a news report (e.g. someone points out that Japan has a Shinkansen, etc.) The notion of public vs. private healthcare has dominated the public debate for the past… decade? Two decades? So in that realm I think there’s a good consciousness that other countries do it differently, and a broader consensus that other countries do it better. And even then, because health care is so politicized I would say I have a lurking suspicion that the when people preach about the benefits of such systems they’re giving me the hard sell, and ignoring the detractors of those systems within those other nations. But -in general- other countries don’t figure in my thoughts in some kind of quotidian “How do they do things there?” way.
  • A corollary, based on anecdata: A French friend has told me that the French media, to his mind, follows America much more closely than the American media does France. (That’s definitely true of my media diet, in which France has recently only existed as a story of Macron being very popular, Macron being very unpopular and suffering from mass protests, and having some kind of refugee crisis. - and a few years earlier, being attacked by ISIS at the Bataclan.) So I assume that by dint of having years of privilege of being the Western Superpower and having some of the eyes of the world on us, we have had the privilege of generally thinking about the world less than the world thinks about us on a routine basis, which itself impacts our habits of mind more generally.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:04 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


The US may just have too much infrastructure for our population distribution. We built so many dams and so much road for towns that have almost disappeared because people want to live in cities. The questions I have for older countries is: how do you handle a town dying? When do you say, "keeping this place at the current level of investment no longer makes sense"? When do you drop a dam instead of fixing it up?
posted by BeeDo at 3:32 PM on July 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?

This poster has been circulating around Tumblr:
IF YOU’RE UNEMPLOYED IT’S NOT BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ANY WORK

Just look around: A housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs, there’s work to be done.

So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs. It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.

This country was not built by the huge corporations or government bureaucracies. It was built by people who work. And, it is working people who should control the work to be done. Yet, as long as employment is tied to somebody else’s profits, the work won’t get done.
We have tons of tasks that need doing. We have lots of people who want to work. We have both people who'd like stable, paying manual labor jobs, and people who can't or won't do manual labor but have computer skills, office skills, accounting skills, engineering skills, and people-organizing skills. We have people willing to pay other people for what they want done.

What we don't have, is a government that supports "thirty people will organize a crew of two hundred to fix this abandoned derelict building, and then we'll rent it out to people who have some income but are currently homeless." Or, if housing codes are too complex, "this crew will take this abandoned dirty lot and turn it into a public park." We don't have a government that supports, "this neighborhood has a dozen computer experts, each of which could teach a middle-school class once a week on computer science." It really doesn't like collectives where resources are shared, especially if there's no extensive record-keeping about who owns what.

We have a whole bunch of people who'd like meaningful work. We have a whole bunch of meaningful work that needs to be done. We have a huge supply of natural resources to work with.

And we have a government that tends to the profits of businesses over the needs of communities where they operate.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:41 PM on July 4, 2019 [54 favorites]


IF YOU’RE UNEMPLOYED IT’S NOT BECAUSE THERE ISN’T ANY WORK

Nope! Because unemployment is at a record low right now, so people definitely need workers.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:46 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Unemployment is so low some people have three jobs
posted by The Whelk at 4:00 PM on July 4, 2019 [54 favorites]


"Unemployment is low" is like, an anti-fact at this point. It just is so far from the actual reality and not even the right answer to the right question that it's pretty much an absurdity.
posted by odinsdream at 4:18 PM on July 4, 2019 [11 favorites]


I live in Minneapolis, where an interstate highway bridge literally collapsed into the Mississippi River. My street has officially graduated from needing resurfacing to qualifying for full reconstruction. On one hand, the awful pavement acts like free speed bumps for the high school traffic. On the other hand, I have to angle over an epic curb chasm into my driveway, and the storm sewers barely drain. According to the public works department, it was last paved in 1960. Maintenance has been perpetually scheduled for 3-5 years in the future since the 1990s.

According to my city council person, reconstruction needs to coincide with a questionably-funded storm water reservoir that is recommended to be built underneath the soccer field in the nearby park to alleviate flooding. The park board wants to do the reservoir at the same time as their 30-year cycle of park upgrades. In order to coordinate money, timelines, and actual work, three different government agencies have to collaborate: the city, the park board, and the watershed district.

My neighbors and I don’t have much hope that the three bureaucracies will figure this out in our lifetime.
posted by Maarika at 4:39 PM on July 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


>>But the core issue is that when a society gets very large and very complex, it's hard to convince people that they should be cold or hungry because there's a dam six counties away that needs half its cement replaced over the next 15 years.

>Also, dams and roads are what keep billions of people warm and fed, pretty directly.


Also the massive amount of jobs created just six counties away in rebuilding that vitally necessary dam, also helps create the jobs the keep the (billions of or however many) people in a job--employed and warm and fed and housed.

So that is traditionally why infrastructure is the one single point of agreement among the major political parties and sides. On the one hand it is "vital for business and the economy and forward progress and making money" and all that, and on the other hand it is (literally) millions of good jobs and good pay for hard working people.

So, the one thing we can all agree on.

In fact, when I was in DC this spring talking to all of the congressional offices in our state about this exact issue, the one thing they all had some optimism they might be able to pass this year, was some kind of infrastructure or federal transportation bill.

Because in a very divided, polarized political atmosphere, the on they everyone (supposedly) all agrees on is the need for infrastructure.

And I don't know that congressional optimism will pan out, but I can say that progress on it is in fact moving forward--not necessarily in the headlines but behind the scenes. They're having the hearings, they're drafting the various sub-parts of the transportation/infrastructure bill that take years to get together. And, what is actually a positive sign, the Senate is highly motivated to move forward with their bill drafting because they are hoping to get their footprint on the subject out there before the House does.

But what I've noticed that is unusual, is there just is not the real consensus around infrastructure between the two parties that there used to be.

Personally I would put the specific blame at the feet of the "Tea Party" nonsense that is still, to a great degree, infecting the Republican Party. There is a whole lot of extreme negativism and do-nothing-ism that is still flowing from that in spades.

Propose to do anything reasonably large at all and the Congressional offices are just plastered by the nay-sayers "how are we ever going to pay for all that" "one millicent tax increase will send me the poorhouse" and more.

What's funny is that attitude was once just one, small wing of one party. But it is really, really affecting large multitudes of people in both parties now.

A sort of militant defeatism.

It's like an entire country needs to takes a serious dose of antidepressants for a couple years, followed by a long course of chill-pills, and then try again . . .
posted by flug at 4:51 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?
I imagine a portion of the country would answer that America became the richest country in the world precisely by not doing things the way the rest of the world does. And slow trains and an impractical non-functioning society are an acceptable trade-off for that.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:07 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


[Comment and a few replies removed. I don't know what would possess someone to copy-paste a comment from a random four-month-old article on another site about another topic into a MeFi thread without somehow clearly disclosing and explaining that decision, but that's not great to start with and even less great as a way to inject a similarly unexplained argument about "bourgeois culture" and "cultural anarchy" into the discussion. Cut whatever that was out.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:20 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


I don't fly much these days but I vividly remember the "fuck not this shit again" feeling of flying into JFK after spending a week in France or whatever. Waiting for a checked bag for 30 minutes, alarms with flashing lights randomly going off with no one in any sort of authority doing anything or even in sight, dripping ceilings, ripped carpets. It's disgusting.

I live in Philadelphia, and the amount of garbage on the streets (not litter--although there's plenty of litter--garbage) is astonishing.

It really does feel like this is going to go on forever, but of course, things break slowly and then all at once, and that's true of governments, too.
posted by Automocar at 5:40 PM on July 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Also, I hate to tie everything directly to Trump-ism, but . . .

My sense is that before the 2016 election results, two opposing things were happening.

#1. Members of Congress elected in Tea Party wave elections were finally coming into leadership. So, there was in one sense, a surge, from the top, of tea party thinking and "shut'er all down" naysaying.

#2. Contrarily, the Tea Party as a national movement seemed to have rather completely run out of steam. It was still hanging around in the vague sense of many people thinking "we're going straight to hell in a handbasket" but as far as an organized political force--poof, it's gone.

So the Tea Party members of Congress, particularly in the House, still had some tea party roots, but also were coming somewhat coming to terms with reality. They were becoming ordinary hard-core conservatives rather than complete dead-enders.

And if Trump had lost, I think that would have been the end of it.

Not forever, of course. But for a good decade or two, anyway. People would have seen that whole direction as a political dead end.

But Trump did win--somehow--and the zombie came back to life. With a vengeance.

"Burn it all down" is a serious mainstream political philosophy--for the moment.

That's my 12.5 cent analysis of the general situation.
posted by flug at 5:59 PM on July 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


Ever since the BLS (bls.gov) stopped counting 'discouraged' workers, I read the news media's reporting of the unemployment rate as fiction. A quick google while composing this suggests the old way we used to calculate unemployment would be about 9.6% (the BLS U-6 number if I skimmed correctly).

Taking a step back I understand that measuring the strength of the US economy in brief is too complicated an endeavour, and analysts do the best we can with what metrics they have available, and how those metrics are established neccessarily changes over time. I believe because the analysts know their metrics provide fuzzy indicators at best, they also faithfully portray a lot of uncertainty about the strength of the economy.

I view the official unemployment rate as less credible than other easy go-to statistics. If I were to grab another simple statistic, I would point to what I see as the elephant in the room, the alarm about the inverted yield curve on treasury bonds, but arguing over economic indicators could be an exhaustive parlour game.

Returning to the issue at hand, I consider myself quite socialist but I understand the most productive and fruitful economic system for everyone (that we have invented so far) is regulated capitalism. It makes perfect sense to me that IMPLICITLY amoral capitalism, as it exercises its power through businesses in the US, will influence politics in ways that directly hurt its citizens, and the more power it has the more citizens will be affected negatively. We don't have children in coal mines again, as far as I know about, but we could get there. We are already at crowdsourcing paying for standard medical care that is affordable or nearly free in other countries. If everyday citizens could regain their influence in American politics to counter corporate influence I would hope the infrastructure issue and many others would slowly correct themselves.

Through this view the decline of American infrastructure makes perfect sense to me. As a social liberal I believe this is debilitating to American productivity and America's future and it needs fixed. It makes me very sad, but unfortunately there are many serious problems. Today on the 4th of July I am more preoccupied with the torture and killing of children by America's government.
posted by BurnMage at 6:01 PM on July 4, 2019 [7 favorites]


Roads in particular are a bit of a sticky wicket here in the US. For various reasons, back in the middle of the last century it was decided that we not only needed to build the Interstate Highway System and other high quality roads for long distance travel but also needed to pave tens of thousands of miles of barely used gravel roads as well.

It's coming to the point now that the lifetime of most of those miles will require replacement irrespective of the amount of money we have or have not spent maintaining them in the meantime. This burden has been reducing the amounts available to spend on more highly used roads at the same time as right wingers have been pursuing the policy of disinvestment (while railing against our apparent decline despite being the primary cause for that decline), which has reduced the availability of resources even further.

We have around an order of magnitude more paved roads for our geographic extent than any other nation on Earth. It should not be surprising to find that we must then spend commensurately more than other nations to maintain them. Or we could, you know, make do with gravel.

Bridges are also a complicated discussion. The top line numbers breathlessly quoted in the media as evidence that everything is collapsing around us do not actually say what is claimed. The metric used conflates structural deficiency as well as "functional obsolescence," which just means that traffic has grown to exceed its capacity. Obviously, these are entirely different problems and the common reporting that treats them as one and the same does the public a major disservice.
posted by wierdo at 6:05 PM on July 4, 2019 [8 favorites]


Or we could, you know, make do with gravel.

...After spending money to rip out the asphalt, because "non-maintained paved road" is much worse than "maintained gravel road," which is less expensive to deal with. Instead, we're going to see less-used roads become disaster sites as the potholes and splitting mix with ice in the winter.

Bridges are also a complicated discussion.

Yep. Media soundbites and a couple of thrown-together bar graphs are not sufficient to convey the actual problems. And the places most likely to be hit by a catastrophic collapse are usually the places with the resources to cope with a catastrophe. Reports that treat "America's Bridges" as a unit, as if there were one set of standards used to build and maintain them, are not helping.

Low-traffic rural bridges are at very high risk, especially in places that used to be more busy, where the population and commercial activity has dwindled over the last 50 years. There may not be any lives lost or even injuries when a bridge collapses, but it'll mean everyone on the other side has to travel half a county to get across. And of course, since it's "only a few dozen daily users, only a few thousand even yearly," it'll be hard to get anyone to pay to get it repaired.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 6:44 PM on July 4, 2019


Meanwhile, back here in Columbus the potholes eat your car all year round now. I truly feel like something has changed just in the past 10 years.
I don’t know about Columbus specifically, but I’d put it at the 2007 bubble collapsing. That led to waves of austerity budgets for most public services — especially fueled by people who had substantially affected retirement plans & weren’t inclined to pay for anything which didn’t seem critical to them personally — and the backlash to Obama being elected meant that the federal effort was a lot less effective than it would have been in different times.
posted by adamsc at 7:01 PM on July 4, 2019


Oddly I rarely see a mention in these discussions that the money to pay for maintenance and the money to pay for major construction comes from different sources.

Maintenance is paid for from operating funds, essentially the government's checking account. You get so much a year from taxes/fees and it doesn't roll over to the next year.

Construction, both new and major reconstruction, is usually paid for with capital funding. That's money borrowed through bonds. It's the government equivalent of a home equity loan, and should only be used for improvements that have a payback period. It rolls over from year to year. And the government has a bit of choice in how much they decide borrow.

Maintenance doesn't get you photo ops, and it's coming from a fixed amount of operating funding, so it's tempting to cut for other things. As their budget gets cut, the people doing the maintenance have to prioritize and conserve it. One way they can do that is to convert an expense - maybe annual service of a mechanical system - into a capital expense - the unmaintained mechanical system fails and needs replacement.
posted by sepviva at 7:13 PM on July 4, 2019 [9 favorites]


I recognize that funding game from at least one university, sepviva. Interesting. Also depressing. Also infuriating when it's greenwashed with the argument that we needed a new building anyway because this one has bamboo floors instead of those old embarassing marble ones. (I dearly hope someone is managing to at least sell the old oak and stone privately, that it's not literally being trashed.)

And I feel, handwavey cranky old person here, that maintenance is almost completely dismissed in the US now -- that it's a poor person thing, an old person thing. I don't know which came first, not being able to pay for it or not admitting it's necessary. In my limited travels, England seems to be in the same trap, France not or not for everything, Japan has a non-USian division of Things to Maintain and Things to Replace but they do maintain some of them.
posted by clew at 7:25 PM on July 4, 2019 [4 favorites]


Coming from the kind of US rural area with shrinking towns and endless miles of rotting infrastructure, and working at the systems layer in IT, I am pretty confident in saying that it takes a LOT of resolve to properly plan, fund, and schedule maintenance. Especially when it falls into "the commons", so individuals don't feel that automatic sense of ownership-driven responsibility.

Furthermore, I'd like to see someone put a stake in the heart of this "richest country in the world" business. How rich is America compared to the rest of the world if you exclude the top 1% from the comparison? The top 5%? With that in mind, where do the resources for maintenance of public works come from?

In our grand, ongoing era of "cut taxes for the rich directly and indirectly through their corporate holdings", how large is the actual pool of taxes in the US available to carry out maintenance? How large is it when compared to the size of the need? How does this compare to other countries?

We have starved the beast that makes our lives possible.

Hooray for libertarian ideology. Shall we now individually bargain and agree to effectively build and maintain our local infrastructure? I'm sure that will go stunningly well.
posted by allium cepa at 7:47 PM on July 4, 2019 [12 favorites]


It very much seems like people of a certain generation had a bunch of things handed to them and thought that all that stuff they inherited was just manna from heaven, part of the natural landscape that requires no thought, no maintenance, no consideration, much less effort.

In reality a bunch of antisocial Ayn Rand acolytes infiltrated academia, corporations, and government, whispering fantasies into people's ears until it became the accepted orthodoxy and the people who were supposed to remember reality bought into their own bullshit because you can in fact temporarily ignore the things that make society work without immediate disastrous consequences due to the sheer inertia (both literal and institutional) involved.

Now that it's the water we are swimming in, it will take the same sort of hard work and long term thinking that brought about the institutions and infrastructure in the first place to rebuild what we already have, much less improve upon it.
posted by wierdo at 8:51 PM on July 4, 2019 [20 favorites]


When do you drop a dam instead of fixing it up?

There was an article in the NYT about what Switzerland was doing to make their dams keep working even as the climate crisis reduces the Alps snowpack (and so reduces how much energy can be extracted).

Part of infrastructure crumbling is due to worsening weather extremes. That will definitely move the needle forwards on the breakpoints between maintenance, collapse, and disposal.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:07 PM on July 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?
I imagine a portion of the country would answer that America became the richest country in the world precisely by not doing things the way the rest of the world does. And slow trains and an impractical non-functioning society are an acceptable trade-off for that.
Yes, the US is the richest country in the world, but I tend to think of it as a country that has some of the richest people in the world, not that Americans are the richest people in the world.
And being the richest is not a great claim if most of those riches are not spent to enrich the lives of all citizens, not with money, but with services.
posted by PollyWaffle at 9:49 PM on July 4, 2019 [5 favorites]


A question to all Americans: how do you imagine the rest of us get things done?

I have always, and non-ironically, assumed that the following is true globally: "Americans are so benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States." -- J. Bartlet Brebner
posted by bryon at 10:05 PM on July 4, 2019 [7 favorites]


When do you drop a dam instead of fixing it up?

Specific to dams, one issue is that within a region, they tend to all have been built within the same period of time, so then they all deteriorate together, making it a big, systemic problem rather than just a question of an individual dam. In the northeast and mid-Atlantic states of the US, for example, almost every creek and river had mill-dams built for water power (ie, sawmills, factories, etc) back in the pre-electric era. In the west, there was a wave of dam building early on for mills, lumber splash-dams, and gold mining, but the real dam building happened between about 1930 and 1960, when the huge dams were built for flood control and power generation, and farmers and landowners built (often with federal assistance) innumerable smaller dams for irrigation and stock water.

So you have the problem off a bunch of dams all getting old together, and with a typical lifespan extending over a few generations (so the people needing to figure out maintenance vs removal are not the people who built it and got the benefits).

But on top of that, we now are starting to consider the ecological impacts of dams in the fix/remove calculation, which never happened before, and can drastically change what dams are considered beneficial and which are not. While bridges have ecological impacts (eg, by locking a river into one position), they aren't nearly as severe as with dams, and we are still using the bridges, unlike the countless derelict dams that were built and are no longer needed.

Societally, for whatever reason, we've largely stopped investing in large infrastructure creation, and are barely investing in infrastructure maintenance. It's not as simple as blaming it on Reagan or any other single politician -- this is something that has happened at every level of government over quite a few decades now. Personally I think it is a huge mistake, and I'm not sure how that could or would be reversed.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:05 AM on July 5, 2019 [6 favorites]


it's almost like there's a large generation of americans who grew up reaping the benefits of the hard work and sacrifices of previous generations, took it all for granted, sucked all the value out of it, and refused to properly maintain it because "i got mine." #notall[unnamedgeneration]
posted by entropicamericana at 6:31 AM on July 5, 2019 [9 favorites]


QFMFT,
"a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business."

Stage four capitalism, hard at work sucking the last dime out of every single thing. I have never been so discouraged in my life.
posted by corvikate at 6:50 AM on July 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


a D+ from the ASCE but also the 12th best in the world according to the World Economic Forum. It seems like a story of two metrics

Or: We inherited superb infrastructure, are doing a D+ job of maintenance, and are currently sliding down through 12th place globally. Hundreds of places to go.


The WEF infrastructure rankings are here. It shows a positive trendline. We are also above Germany, Denmark, Canada, Norway, UK.

Just because something's bad and should be improved doesn't mean it's catastrophic.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:13 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


As a city resident, I see a lot of racism and anti-urbanism in the lack of funding for projects in my city and I'm sure others. The state funds are controlled by rural Republicans in gerrymandered districts who don't want to give a dime to people that live in cities even though the state controls many of the roads, bridges and tunnels.

Also the fragmented structure of American government makes it hard for pool funds or make any decisions on what to fix. I mean my county has 130 separate municipal governments and to get anything done that crosses any borders is close to impossible. And then there's the county government, the state, 40 school districts in the county and I don't know how many semi-autonomous public authorities. Everyone here constantly screams that we should have light rail to the airport but to get the seven or eight municipalities, the county, the state, the Port Authority, Air Port Authority, the coast guard and the feds and whomever else has a stake to agree on the plan and fund it is just close to impossible.

Just a tiny example but I tried for years to get the pedestrian bridge over an interstate near my house cleaned because it's full of human waste and needles and empty vodka bottles and I could never get either the state or the city to admit that they were responsible for maintenance. I got two city council members and my state rep involved and nothing. There's going to be a new council person in my district next year, maybe I'll try to get him to take it on as a project.
posted by octothorpe at 7:14 AM on July 5, 2019 [18 favorites]


I could never get either the state or the city to admit that they were responsible for maintenance.

Two options:
1) Find a lawyer willing to help you sue either the city or the state.
or
2) Get some documentation from both the city and the state declaring they are not responsible for maintenance and other management, and then encourage use of the bridge for projects the city wouldn't authorize. Make many copies of the documentation; make sure everyone setting up has one. Turn them into posters and plaster the walls with them.

I'm sure nobody nearby wants the bridge turned into a homeless camp. Maybe use it as a site for needle exchanges, sex ed information distribution, and very small pride parades. Paint it with rainbows and activist slogans. If both the city and state have declared, "we are not responsible for what happens on this property," find a way to make improvements without their support.

(This approach won't work on larger infrastructure things, nor in communities where this kind of activism is very unsafe.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:20 AM on July 5, 2019 [6 favorites]


Going To Maine: The comic notes that the US has a D+ from the ASCE but also the 12th best in the world according to the World Economic Forum. It seems like a story of two metrics, though not one I'm willing to Google. Is global infrastructure so bad? How would the ASCE or other national organizations rank other countries?

clew: Or: We inherited superb infrastructure, are doing a D+ job of maintenance, and are currently sliding down through 12th place globally. Hundreds of places to go.

ToddBurson: But essentially I see that infrastructure report card as a political tool (note that afaik ASCE doesn't use words like "crumbing" - that's articles citing the report). It's intentionally deceptive in not being clear what their metric is. I don't have a problem with the idea of an infrastructure rating or their methodology or results or call into question the accuracy of any of it. But what I do kinda have a problem with is how public it is. I think without a good enough technical background people might not know how to interpret that information. Cost-benefit analysis is a huge component to repair but people outside of the practice probably have a skewed idea of the factors that are often involved.

Excellent points. For similar coverage and skepticism, see this article from the Washington Post, 2013: America’s infrastructure gets a D+. That’s not as bad as it sounds.
experts say we should approach this figure skeptically. The ASCE is very good at pointing out engineering deficiencies in our infrastructure — but not so good on whether it's actually beneficial to upgrade. "We need this report to point out problems," says Joshua Schank of the Eno Center on Transportation. "But if you're thinking about policy, you have to think more broadly than that."

Indeed, it's worth noting that the ASCE always gives U.S. infrastructure poor grades. From reading past reports, you'd get the impression that it's a miracle the United States is even a functioning country. And it's hardly surprising that an engineering group is in favor of trillions in additional spending on civil-engineering projects.
There's another agency, TRIP, that produces similar reports every year, for each state, but focused on transportation infrastructure. I know that they get their data from state Departments of Transportation, because I've been involved in getting our "wishlist" of projects to them. They're the big-ticket jobs we can't complete now, and I'm guessing they also data that states report each year through the Highway performance Monitoring System (HPMS), where states post details about the quality of their infrastructure, vehicle miles traveled, and a ton of other stats.

Yes, we could use a lot of money to make every road, bridge, and tunnel like new, but do we need infrastructure in the configuration it is now? Yes, it'll be more expensive to build a new, smaller road in the right place, but it may save a lot of money in the long run.

The good news: with prioritized maintenance based on preservation versus maintenance (first site I found with this type of graph; here's another site with fancy Flash graphs of the same sort of lifecycle cost), we can stretch our limited budgets pretty well. Thanks to condition modeling, we can understand how and where infrastructure decays over time.

Mr.Know-it-some: Just because something's bad and should be improved doesn't mean it's catastrophic.

But that doesn't make for exciting headlines or articles when ASCE or TRIP release their annual reports! And that hyperbolic coverage means their annual reports matter! (State DOTs use those reports to reinforce the importance of infrastructure, which is not otherwise an eye-catching topic, and it allows us to rely on someone else's bold headlines, while we can present the dull facts and figures.)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:40 AM on July 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


When do you drop a dam instead of fixing it up?

Undamming the Elwha.
posted by loquacious at 12:14 PM on July 5, 2019 [3 favorites]


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