A steel structure for the San Francisco Bay Bridge at Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. in China, 11 July 2011. California’s Dept. of Transportation chose this company to make the girders & tower meant to improve the bridge's earthquake resilience.
"Bridge to the Future"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
February 16, 2012
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
This time, let's build infrastructure that lasts
PRESIDENT OBAMA'S blueprint for fiscal 2013 has a lot of losers, and they are not the rich Americans who might see their taxes increased. Almost every department will suffer dramatic budget cuts in order to reduce the $1.3 trillion deficit. Priorities are more limited and once-favored programs have been killed.
Despite all the bad news for federal programs, the budget also reflects a commitment, in numbers, to rebuild our neglected infrastructure, including lots of crumbling bridges. It is ostensibly for job creation. But it is also an opportunity to promote the obvious, but so often ignored, sentiment that we should not simply build, but build to last. In all the frenzy for shovel-ready projects to invest in, the most valuable standard should be "22nd-Century-ready."
The Transportation Department, not often the favored child in federal outlays, is the big man on campus this week. With major investments in highways and public transportation as a way to spur job creation, the new budget increases the department's mandatory and discretionary funding by 2 percent, and almost doubles the spending on our infrastructure. The money to do so comes directly from the peace dividend as the wars end in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Infrastructure projects are too often promoted exclusively for job creation, a legacy of Obama's early stimulus package. They focus our attention on quantifiable standards of jobs gained or money spent. That's not necessarily bad, but it can limit how we judge the quality of these investments and how we build those projects.
So, here are a few things we can predict about the future: There will be hurricanes and flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes, and even crazy people who will want to blow things up or tear things down. None of this is new, or particularly surprising. But these threats are multiplied by the interconnections of a society where people, resources, communications networks, and supply chains often begin and end at the same place.
In other words, not every bridge is "the" bridge, as former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff correctly suggested when talking about prioritizing security efforts. Losing a two-lane bridge down the street from his house would be inconvenient, but of insignificance compared to losing the Golden Gate Bridge.
We know this is true, but we don't often commit to infrastructure design that way; we too often settle for a patchwork of fixes on what is broken, and don’t think enough about the most desirable way to fix things. The New Orleans levees that are still being rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina will withstand a "100-year" storm, for example. That's not such great news, according to an independent research panel that criticized the design, for those in New Orleans in year 101.
A society like ours will never be immune from all harms; stuff will happen. The goal is to build it in a way that makes us most adaptable to those harms. Focusing design efforts to protect the environment, or to promote biking or walking, are all important aspects of any infrastructure investment. But they matter little if the structure can't survive its unique surroundings.
Again, a bridge is illustrative. And not just any bridge but the design for the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, which partially collapsed after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new design is built around one obvious premise: The earth will move again in California, and the bridge must stay intact.
The bridge, expected to open in 2013, will sway with the earth. It is being built with enough flexibility so that it literally "rides the earthquake," remarked its lead designer. This isn't simply to protect the bridge, or the people who may be on it during the disaster. The bridge may very well be one of the only lifelines to deliver emergency care and supplies to devastated regions. And it will last a very long time.
The president's new half-trillion-dollar proposal for highway, bridge, and mass transit projects should be just the beginning of federal and state efforts to promote resilient designs. As the details of how the money will be spent are devised, traditional means through tax breaks or regulations should be coupled with more creative inducements — such as engineering competitions or research and development grants — to promote projects that not only employ workers, but build for a very long future that will bring new hurricanes, earthquakes, and bedlam.
Then, we may not need another massive infrastructure investment in the future. Then, maybe, we can all confidently move to New Orleans in year 101.
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