As the sun sets on yet another semester in civil engineering here at UTC, thoughts turn to what we’re really supposed to be doing. A large part of civil engineering is engaged in the building, maintenance and upgrade of our physical infrastructure, which includes roads, railroads, airports, water and sewer systems, to some extent electricity systems, and others.
One of my colleagues is a concrete specialist. Concrete is nasty stuff; for this reason the asphalt and soils labs have cast concrete experimentation into outer darkness. But one of his specialties is blast-proof concrete, something that, say, the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City could have used twenty years ago. That brings him into national security interests. Recently he attended a meeting of the Society of American Military Engineers, where he gave a presentation on our vulnerable infrastructure.
Our infrastructure is vulnerable in two respects. The first is that we have tens of thousands of road and railroad bridges in the U.S., to say nothing of the electrical lines, reservoirs and other major structures. Many of these are in remote locations and are difficult to patrol. We usually think of terrorist strikes in urban areas, but just think of the remote interstate bridges whose removal would create a real mess. (The Interstate System’s original purpose was military, as was the case with Adolf Hitler’s autobahns.)
But it’s also vulnerable in another respect: it’s in bad shape. Every year the American Society of Civil Engineers delivers its report card on our crumbling infrastructure, and every year it is dreary, depressing reading. My colleague, before heading out to this SAME meeting, made the observation that our enemies don’t have to blow our critical infrastructure up, they just need to wait until it collapses.
So how did the supposedly greatest country on earth allow this state of affairs to happen? As with immigration, to err is human, to create a real mess requires a bipartisan effort. On the left we have the environmentalists, who believe that improving our infrastructure will only lead to its use and the increase in carbon footprints, which is anathema. On the right, our roads in particular have the bad taste of being built and maintained by the government; paying any more taxes for this is anathema. Throw in the lack of interest in the future engendered by the declining birth rate (to say nothing of Boomer selfishness) and you have the perfect storm of a nation whose infrastructure is sliding to Third World standards.
The usual “fix” for this is to call for government advocacy. In our political system, that’s an uphill battle. Our government is drowning in trying to keep up with entitlements and transfer payments of one kind or another. At this point we can keep plugging away, but until the bipartisan conspiracy to keep money out of infrastructure investments is broken, we’re not going to get very far.
And for those who want to bring us down? Not blowing things up is a hard sell for some of them; I doubt Isis, struggling to hold their desert enclave and their foot soldiers in our cities ducking the cops, is much for waiting. A more patient rival is China. Facing the dilemma of the sick man of North America, a U.S. in decline of its own making suits the purpose of a nation for whom time is measured entirely differently than with a country where the long term is after lunch.
I’m not sure there’s an easy way out of this. What to do is not difficult; getting it done is the hard part. Benito Mussolini’s claim to fame was getting the trains to run on time; our task is to make sure they (and the cars, buses, planes, etc.) run at all.