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Zoom, Zoom, Watch out for that pothole!, Zoom!

11 March 2008

(or: Reason #1 why I am not a libertarian)

Inspired by Infrastructure for the Future We Want, an article by Alex Steffen on WorldChanging.

When I get bored waiting for the metro, I count the elevator outages that scroll across the announcements ticker: Elevator Outage, White Flint, Shuttle from Twinbrook; Elevator Outage Virginia Square, Shuttle from Ballston….rarely fewer than a half dozen, and I have never seen a day when all the elevators were working.

The DC Metro System is 42 years old. Granted, it is a century younger than New York City transit. But track work, elevator repair, escalator mending, is eternal. The system doesn’t need more patches. It needs an overhaul. Skimping on repairs or restorations and making due with patches can have fatal consequences.

While some elements of U.S. infrastructure are sheer marvels of engineering, the system at large -all the roads with cracks and potholes, structurally deficient bridges, the aging public transit systems- needs huge renovations. Indeed, the U.S. is falling behind in a global comparison as well: the first American high speed rail system will be not in the U.S. but in Argentina.

Rebuilding our infrastructure would be inordinately expensive. Indeed, how is it even thinkable at the beginning of a recession? On one hand (the unrealistic one), if taxes were progressive instead of regressive, and if we got ourselves out of this money sinkhole of an idiotic “war,” it might be easier to take care of the important domestic issues. On the other hand, updating the infrastructure would provide a large quantity of domestic jobs, the cost would be spread over multiple levels of government, and citizens could easily see how they themselves benefit – either by employment or safe and easier transit.

Updating our infrastructure is a prime opportunity to take into consideration the grave facts about our ecological state, and need to conserve energy and reduce emissions. Indeed, these are necessary goals, if we want our children to have at least the quality of life we are accustomed to.

There are the obvious methods of greening our infrastructure: bike lanes, focusing on mass transit rather than freeways (Worldchanging has a wonderful article: “My Other Car is a Bright Green City” about cars and emissions). Effective mass transit that encourages urban, rather than suburban, growth, is better for the environment. While cities might seem dirtier, they have a much smaller ecological footprint per person, of which the population denseness and decreased need to drive is a major factor. To note (from the above-mentioned article), it is easier to effectively and prolifically green buildings than it is to green automobiles.

But there are other issues as well, such as sourcing energy for the system. Hot asphalt roads are natural solar panels. The Dutch are already beginning to use them to heat buildings and regulate roadtop temperatures so the roads require less maintenance. Or what about piezoelectrics – vibration energy? Two years ago the BBC did a story about the vibrations at the Victoria Cross underground station Granted, it’s not enough energy to power the trains, but between the 34,000 commuters and the hundreds of trains that pass through the station each day, it could certainly generate enough electricity to light itself. There is no reason to let that energy go to waste. The cost of maintaining the system is high enough as is.

And that brings me to my final point: using the overhaul as a way to boost the sorry financial state of the transit systems. While SEPTA and WMATA come particularly to mind, there is (to the best of my knowledge) no transit system in the world that breaks even, much less turns a profit. It is the maintenance that is so expensive – we are using century old technology at well over capacity. Updating the infrastructure is an enormous upfront investment, but, making it more durable, more energy efficient, paired with adjusting the routes and service (again, another large investment) to be more efficient, would greatly reduce long run costs. Not enough that they wouldn’t require subsidies, I don’t imagine, but hopefully enough that they won’t have an operation deficit.


There are so many other types of infrastructure, physical, communicative, or societal: energy, waste, water, the legal system, phone lines, financial markets, the school system, even the internet. Keeping them well functioning is necessary to keeping society well functioning – when they break down, so do we, and when they work well, people can put up with a lot – Sadaam Hussein was a harsh dictator, but the garbage got picked up on time. I think the provision of infrastructure is a primary reason why we need the government; parcelling the services out to firms without regulation can easily lead to monopoly pricing and favoritism.

I will have more to say on infrastructure in the future.

And more reasons why I am not a libertarian.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mark permalink
    11 March 2008 5:28 PM

    The agencies in charge of maintaining roads are very conservative, and for good reason. They have so much to maintain and so little budget and staff that having to pay special attention to certain stretches of road is simply infeasible. To be fair, some agencies are better than others. But you aren’t going to see new tech experiments on the roads any time soon. The DOTs will not implement them without a lot of testing. Partnerships between the DOTs and major universities are an excellent way to do this – use university labor and DOT roads. Now the DOT doesn’t have to monitor the experiment, and ideally these things will last longer, so there’s less maintenance involved. And the DOT is involved in the testing process from the beginning, so they know the results and see them first hand. I think many states have these programs, but there’s only so much they can research – it’s not exactly a popular field.

    A great example is permeable asphalt. On paper, it’s a great idea. Asphalt that lets water pass through it. In practice, it’s very difficult to use. It requires very regular maintenance to clear debris from the surface and the pores. And it’s more expensive – which means that when it comes time for repairs, the grant that (probably) covered installation is no longer providing funding, and so the cheapest solution, regular asphalt, is used. Now you have spots that aren’t permeable. And as the years go by, there are more and more of them, and soon the surface isn’t very permeable at all. And the drainage system was not designed to carry all of the water, so it overflows, or breaks, which leads to even more costly repairs and erosion and things like that. Oh, and the permeable asphalt really isn’t heavy-duty enough for roads, only for parking lots. Which is why they’ll only be installed with grants, because they’re going on private property.

    But I think the infrastructure problem is slowly gaining awareness. It’s more dire than many people realize, but we aren’t completely doomed. Yet. I can only hope that we figure it out and start moving in the right direction before there are several significant catastrophes that serve as wake-up calls.

  2. 11 March 2008 5:33 PM

    Independent of the money, the main problem I see here in Boston and elsewhere is that the only way to do the replacements and upgrades necessary is to shut down a large section of an already overloaded transit system, which would cause a huge number of detour-related headaches.

    It’s a little bit easier in Midwest cities, where there is more space, more of a grid, and therefore more redundancy (even the biggest projects in Minneapolis are generally done by shutting down half the freeway, redoing one side, then switching and shutting down the other half). This is not really an option in a place like Boston, where most of the major routes are spokes (no built-in redundancy), side streets are too narrow/indirect/oneway to take most of the capacity, and the roads are already overloaded.

    Assuming the money problem gets taken care of, how do you handle the detour stage?

  3. herbertanzer permalink*
    12 March 2008 9:51 AM

    @ Mark – Permeable asphalt sounds like a very strange idea…is it primarily to lessen ice/water-sliding or eroding runoff?
    What about letting other countries do the research for us? I mean, the Netherlands is implementing the solar road technology as we speak. If it succeeds there, doesn’t that give it credibility? (Especially if it lessens the amount of necessary maintainence from temperature contraction/expansion)

    @ UltraNurd – Aye, there’s the rub, isn’t it? But it has to be done eventually – the system will break down eventually – in DC, it wouldn’t even make much difference – shared tracks, half hour delays, are pretty common. Why does it have to be huge sections? I would think most logically you would start with the tracks and work it station-by-station, so the trains would have to bottleneck at one point, but not for terribly long. And as long as you’re not changing track width, it should still run. Cars, if they need to be updated, can be done off track.

    Also, if the T was updated first, it might ease congestion on the roadways, making work easier. There are other ways to get people off the road as well, such as charging them for congestion. (Singapore, Stockholm, and London do this already, if I am correct).

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