The Blue Raccoon

Friday, August 03, 2007

Highways To Hell?

The I35W Bridge in Minneapolis collapse on Wed., Aug. 1,
generated enormous media coverage in that typical
disproportionate attention way that warps perception.
Though the total death total isn't known at this writing, compare the present
unfortunate event to a typical bus crash in India.

If a truck burns in Minneapolis, is it a disaster or a catastrophe?

in huge "declaration of war" type marched in hysterical precision across the headlines of newspapers and in the television crawls. Keith Olbermann was reduced to providing play-by-play for helicopter views of a what was an obvious bad and fatal event for some.

With all news all the time, though, there's just the news anchor sitting in a chair repeating words that come to him through an earpiece, while trying to get what purports to be real information from a correspondent who may be standing a mile away. Does the news consumer really need to be inflicted with this for hours on end, when the world doesn't just stop for one bridge falling down, no matter how many school buses are on it?

So, billion eyed Blue Raccoon audience, you say: but, Harry, you don't have to watch it. And I didn't, and I haven't. I can take only so much repition of basic facts and wobbly overhead shots of a crumpled bridge.

Does this constitute a disaster, though? Sure, if you or people you know were on or under the the bridge when it fell, this was a devastating personal loss. But with not even a dozen known dead -- the last count I saw was hovering around eight, but that'll go up--what is it other than a dramatic accident, an "infrustructural mishap." Sounds bloodless, I know, but the U.S. media's tendency to run around in little circles and scream bloody murder when something that isn't really as serious as it may look on a screen is fatiguing. Sure, at first, nobody knew if it wasn't a bomb or some other deviant attempt to sow terror. Instead, it's just faulty construction that lost the physics roulette, and not anything more.

I don't want to flog this too much, but note the April 21, 2006 report of a bus near the town of Surapeta in India's Assam state, that plunged into a lake while carrying a wedding party with more than 80 people. Some 64 were killed and more than 20 injured. Or another one, a Reuters report dated Oct. 20, 2004, from Raipur, India, where 56 bodies were dragged out of a bus that skidded off a road into a rain-swollen reservoir. And this goes on and on. It's a graph or two in the paper, a blip on the news. What annoys me most, is the implication in this wall-to-wall coverage is that This This Just Isn't Supposed To Happen Here.

A commenter observed on Richmond's Bacon's Rebellion political policy online journal, which responded to the collapse with remarks about infrastructure deterioration, emphasis mine:

"And this isn't the first time. There was the Connecticut incident and the South Bronx Expressway.

 If something happens once, it's an accident. If it happens twice, it's somebody's fault.

 But this is only the dramatic tip of th iceberg. A recent letter to the editor described two crashes on Route 29. According to the author, poor shoulders were partly to blame in both cases. In both cases VDOT was there the next day, regrading the shoulders to remove the bear traps.

 These dramatic incidents get all the attention, but the cumulative small impacts of many things left undone is much greater, probably."

Highways are expensive to build and more expensive to maintain; with needs ranging from resurfacing to planting the pretty flowers in the median. A USA Today report just last year, summarizing the interstate highway system's anniversary of its full half-century, stated, again, emphasis mine:

"Spending on interstate repairs and improvements this year is about $17 billion — less than the $21 billion needed to maintain highways and bridges in their current condition and keep traffic congestion from worsening, reports TRIP [The Road Information Project, a Washington non-profit group that promotes transportation policies that relieve congestion and aid economic productivity.] It would cost $35 billion a year for major improvements that would significantly reduce congestion, TRIP says.

"The interstate system has served us well, but the time has come to develop a vision now of a modern highway system if we are going to continue to enjoy the benefits of safe, reliable travel," says Frank Moretti, TRIP's director of policy and research. "The interstates have helped us compete in a global economy. Now, we see other countries improving their interstate systems at the time ours is starting to decline."

Or how about just reinvesting in commuter transit, which the interstate highway system, General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tire assisted in demolishing? You can read about it here and here and here.

Where public policy's abdication of mass transit hit first and worst was California, that needed these systems as its cities grew like eggs tossed from a height. As went Los Angeles and Oakland, so went the USA. The embracing of transit for highway construction bequeathed to the 20th century development directing transit, rather than transit directed development. So I don't care how many "new urbanist" Potemkin Villages you build in the cul-de-sac archipelago, if you still need to take an expressway to get into them, what's the point?

Back east, in my very own Richmond, which in fact was the testing gronds for the first working electric trolley system in the U.S., (and argument is made, perhaps in the world), the streetcar helped grow the city's residential and commerical viability. Where trolley stops were located, so grew up groceries, flower shops, drug stores and amusement parks.

The Richmond transit system was ripped up and destroyed in 1949, just when it could've been used most to offset sprawl, had not the city's provincialism and psychotic need to keep blacks and poor people separated eclipsed good sense. One of the bad decisions made here, and different from European counterparts, was that the municipality didn't own the street cars. Private interests acquired transit systems and bundled them into investment portfolios. In Richmond's case, New York stock brokers ran the city's transit system into the ground.

There was also some government deregulation in the mix, that by the 1930s prevented utilities that provided the power from operating transit systems. Government regulation also controlled fares. Thus, utilities felt they couldn't earn a profit on the ragged old trolley, and stopped repairing them, thus causing consumer annoyance to rise. When General Motors introduced the motor bus, it was welcomed by most riders and investors.

Richmond's were trundled off and burned in a Wagnerian pyre. Richmond, though, was just one of more than 25 municipalities that had by then succumbed to the infernal National Lines that wrecked transit in the U.S., in part by playing into the U.S. attitude of convenience. Well guess what? "Convenience" is killing us and the planet.

I was also struck when reading via the RVAblogs portal the remarks of Chinese exchange students visiting Richmond and how they observe both the lack of pedestrian traffic and the reliance on the automobile to get almost anywhere, even short distances. Now, bear in mind, this is Richmond in July-August when the universities are out and those who can get out, do; Richmond isn't Shanghai; sprawl leaves many commuters without viable options because the region doesn't have a central planning authority with legal teeth nor the city and county governments the political will to make it a top priority. But, having said all that, read:

"America is regarded as a country on wheels. This is a proper statement to describe this country . I have seen various kinds of automobiles parking of driving around the campus during these two days. And there is little people walking on the street even in the day . The whole town appears a little desolate. This is my first deep impression about the traffic condition around VCU campus. My second deep impression is that though there are various cars on road, the drivers almost do not ring the horn—at least I do not hear a ring. It is impossible in China. Maybe this phenomenon is just the symbol of high civilization of USA. And in my opinion , Chinese drivers should learn from America drivers. 
Via blog for luy5"

I can attest from years of personal experience that some days when walking to and from work, or even elsewhere, I can look down one of the Fan District's bosky streets and see not one person stirring, clear down to the sidewalk's vanishing point.

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