Fears of Collapse

Since last month's bridge disaster in Minneapolis, everyone's heard about America's 75,000 "structurally deficient" bridges. Although the label doesn't mean any of them are about to fall, the staggering stat reminds us how much government at all levels has neglected its infrastructure.
by | September 2007
 

Since last month's bridge disaster in Minneapolis, everyone's heard about America's 75,000 "structurally deficient" bridges. Although the label doesn't mean any of them are about to fall, the staggering stat reminds us how much government at all levels has neglected its infrastructure.

What the number doesn't tell us is where to focus our attention. The fact is, it doesn't matter all that much--either in economic or in human terms--if a country bridge collapses when no one is on it, which is most of the time. And more than 60,000 spans on the deficient list are in rural areas. By contrast, when the main artery through a major metro area goes down, the costs of congested commutes and delayed freight shipments can ripple through a state's economy for years, as is likely in Minnesota.

Yet even after the I-35 disaster, the discussion is still the same old one about gas taxes and how to raise more money. Nobody's talking about targeting spending so that scarce dollars go to the most economically vital infrastructure. A big juicy number like 75,000 is enough for Congress and state legislatures to start the pork barrel rolling across bridges in every member's district.

For a more rational way to fund infrastructure, take a look at a recent report from Britain. It's called the Eddington Transport Study, and it's the product of some hard-nosed economists whose take boils down to one question: How do infrastructure investments help economic competitiveness? Eddington relies heavily on something lacking in U.S. planning--cost-benefit analyses--to conclude that small targeted projects, such as unclogging a bottleneck, can pay bigger dividends than the most expensive megaprojects. The analysis goes well beyond bridges. But if you're looking for some direction after Minneapolis, it's worth a read.

FEED AT THE METER

Everyone loves a sidewalk cafe, and the people of Birmingham, Michigan, are no exception. This suburb north of Detroit had a problem, however: Most of the sidewalks downtown were too narrow for restaurants to put out tables and chairs.

So the town has begun allowing al fresco dining to take over the streets--or at least the parking lane. Want some tailpipe with your tilapia? Actually, the ambience is nicer than it sounds. By ordinance, the cafes must be built on elevated platforms that jut out over the street.

Some drivers have grumbled about giving up parking spaces. But the two cafes opened so far have been a hit. "We figured it's a trade-off and it's worth it," says Planning Director Jana Ecker, pointing out that Birmingham's town slogan is "A Walkable Community."

SECOND CITY

I admit that I still don't totally get Second Life. If you're not familiar with it, Second Life is a popular online game--or, according to its Web site, "a 3-D virtual world." Players, er, "residents" create an imaginary online persona. They hang out at imaginary online bars, go to imaginary online events and from what I hear, have a lot of online imaginary sex. I'm sticking with my first life, for now.

But Second Life has sucked in 8 million people (so far) and Boston figures some of them may want to hang out in an imaginary Beantown. The city is working with some local university students--good idea--to build some Boston landmarks in Second Life. One idea is to re-create the Freedom Trail as it looked in the 1700s. Another is to have a virtual city hall where Second Lifers might attend community events or talk to their councilman. That is, if their councilman understands the idea and agrees to go along with it.

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