Once envied, America's aging infrastructure is in alarming shape

As local planners tackle projects such as the 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct, they shouldn't forsake attractive design, along the lines of the Roman aqueducts and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
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The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure

As local planners tackle projects such as the 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct, they shouldn't forsake attractive design, along the lines of the Roman aqueducts and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Infrastructure is the key to our future. It is crucial for long-term economic recovery in America and the Pacific Northwest. It can be the basis of continued prosperity for our children and a way to address a host of contemporary challenges from climate change to chronic unemployment. The renewal and development of our failing infrastructure is the great, public-spirited task of this generation. Indeed, it will be the difference between America achieving a prosperous future or being left behind as a second-rate economy.

After decades of neglect, bridges are failing, pipes are bursting and levees are breaking. We need only think of the vivid pictures of New Orleans awash in dirty floodwaters or the tragic Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse during summer rush hour. But these national images of failing infrastructure can be held at arms length - it'ꀙs not here after all. Then we remember the weakened Howard Hansen dam and levees in the Green River Valley, the aging Seawall and Viaduct and pipe bursts in the Ravenna District. We've got our own stories to tell too.

Although infrastructure surrounds us daily, we take it for granted. Projects like the 520 bridge replacement and light-rail construction land in newspaper headlines. Driving downtown we notice reduced lanes of traffic on Fourth Avenue where workers are replacing sections of roadway. But this is all static in the background, at most a temporary inconvenience. We seem to forget that our homes are linked by water, sewer, gas and electrical lines to distant generation and treatment plants. Or that we travel and trade on roads, bridges, trains, airports and ship ports. These interwoven systems perform like the various veins and organs of the human body, making modern urban life possible. When they fail, our quality of life declines.

The development of modern cities has been a major driver of infrastructure development. In the sulfurous bloom of the Industrial Revolution, London became the first giant city in a new era of big cities. Before the 19th century, the global population was overwhelmingly rural. With the growth of new factories, London's population exploded in size and density. The lack of modern sewage systems caused the contamination of drinking water. Cholera epidemics killed thousands. The first modern systems of water and sewer infrastructure were installed in London and greatly improved both public health and living standards.

This may seem like ancient history to us even though many developing countries to this day lack basic sewer and water infrastructure. Even developed countries have their problems. Canada still disposes of untreated sewage through a big pipe out into the Pacific Ocean. Up until the 1960's, Lake Washington had 23 sewage pipes disgorging their contents directly into the water. The view literally stunk. Around that time the West Point Sewage Treatment Plant was built in Discovery Park along with an integrated system for treating sewage. Needless to say, Lake Washington'ꀙs water quality and odor were greatly improved.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), it would cost $2.2 trillion dollars just to repair America's existing infrastructure. In a dismal report card rating everything from freight rail to water treatment plants, ASCE gave America a 'D-' average. Only bridges scraped by with a 'C'. Around 70,000 bridges throughout the United States are deemed to be 'obsolete' or 'structurally deficient'. Think about that on your next family road trip.

Our infrastructure was once the envy of the world. America had shown a particular genius in investing in its infrastructure. These investments were seen as a foundation of shared prosperity for the general public. President Lincoln initiated the Trans-Continental Railroad to tie together a growing nation after a divisive Civil War. FDR created a slew of public works projects to lift the nation out of Depression and put people back to work. President Eisenhower brought into being the interstate highway system to link a modern nation together and provide for military defense. But since the early 1980s, there has been an alarming decrease in infrastructure funding and maintenance. As America moved into a high-consumption society based on debt and cheap energy, infrastructure was neglected. Even the solar panels were torn off the White House roof.

There may be a silver lining here. America cannot continue to develop infrastructure as it has in the past 50 years. Maybe this is good opportunity to rethink the next round of investment; so we can get back on track but not the same track.

Infrastructure needs to be better integrated across the multiple systems. It needs to be multi-purpose as well as designed to have a lighter impact on the landscape while providing environmental mitigation. There must be dedicated funding sources for maintenance and improvement. And there has to be a more rigorous, transparent planning and testing of projects for cost-effectiveness, performance, sustainability and design. Infrastructure will need to respond to the challenges of increasing energy prices, climate change and shifts in the economy, demographics and population distribution.

We should not throw down the gauntlet of infrastructure development at all costs. Bad infrastructure is worse than none at all. We should remember the Washington Public Power Supply System, or WPPSS (pronounced aptly 'Whoops'). In the 1970's when nuclear power was all the rage, the state of Washington was primed to build five nuclear reactors. Only one was completed, leading to what was then the largest bond default in American history. As a result a commission was formed to outline a slew of conservation methods that were highly effective in reducing state power demand. Conservation practices can eliminate or at least reduce the need for large-scale, capital-intensive systems. Small is beautiful.

As we build new infrastructure, we should also focus on attractive design. The Roman aqueducts were beautiful structures that also carried fresh water into the city. The Golden Gate Bridge carries 43 million trips a year and yet it is a graceful structure spanning water and sky, a marvelous icon of the West Coast. The Newton Waste Water Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, NY, proves that even a 'poop plant' can have a striking design. Our own Capitol Hill Lincoln Reservoir Park is another example. Responding to potential terrorist attacks on water supplies, cities were instructed to cover their open air water reservoirs. Seattle used this project to create a wonderful park on top of the reservoir lid in a dense urban neighborhood. This is multi-use infrastructure by design — or should we say with design. What we make beautiful we will maintain and enjoy daily.

There are some hopeful signs on the horizon. The Obama administration has channeled funds towards infrastructure, after decades of neglect by past administrations. Stimulus funds have gone towards 'shovel-ready' projects as well as wind and solar power and high speed rail. Currently, under consideration in Congress is the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank that has similarities to the successful European model. Governors Rendell and Schwarzenegger and Mayor Bloomberg have formed an organization called Building America'ꀙs Future that has been lobbying the President and Congress to make infrastructure spending and reform a top national priority. And over a year ago, Public Television began a platform series called "Blue Print America" to profile the state of American Infrastructure. Although there is a growing recognition of the critical importance of infrastructure, there is no assurance of decisive national action given the corrosive political climate.

Webster's dictionary defines infrastructure as "the underlying foundation." Our foundations are crumbling, make no mistake about it. Our future rests on restoring and renewing these underlying systems that serve us daily. Europe and Japan have continued to maintain high quality infrastructure. China will complete 16,000 miles of truly high speed rail by 2020, all built within a 20-year period! Will America rise to the challenge again? Will we rebuild our nation? Will we build the infrastructure that will ensure our future prosperity? The time to rest on our laurels is long over.


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