Mono…! D’oh! Or, why we should invest in infrastructure maintenance

I haven’t blogged in forever. Not to excuse my lack of output but I do have a new baby and classes and a six year old and I am department chair. So I’ve had other stuff on my mind. Still, I’ve missed blogging. It’s a good way to stay abreast of current events and express myself using (mostly) adult words.

After such a long absence, my usual short missive about tech seems a little meh, so I’m using this platform to actually say something that matters. So please bear with me while I pull out the soapbox and stand on it. Here goes:


Our country needs it. Roads and bridges and pipes and all that other stuff that allows us to live our lives, travel, shop, drink, shower, etc. And that stuff has been crumbling for years now due to a single problem: infrastructure isn’t sexy. Or I should say that infrastructure isn’t thought of as sexy anymore. It used to be.

Our interstate highway system wouldn’t exist if Eisenhower hadn’t seen the Autobahn and thought “I want me some of that”. And pipes that whisk fresh, potable water to our homes were basically once thought of as magical. But since the eighties, maybe nineties, ANY kind of government spending, particularly on maintenance, has been relegated to the “let’s pretend no one needs this” pile.
Eisenhower love letter to the Autobahn
Fact is, most of our infrastructure was very well built, but with the understanding that it needs maintenance. That is not a weakness, it’s just how built things work: you have to maintain them. Like changing your oil and getting your car inspected.

Why don’t we like maintenance anymore? I honesty don’t know. Hate-watching HGTV, I can only guess that people don’t understand that all things need maintenance. Instead they want brand new stuff and then brand new stuff again when things start to break down. Maybe our rapidly improving technology is to blame. These days, we buy new phones and other tech toys every year. In the eighties, you’d hang on to TVs for what felt like lifetimes. Still, though, most people could agree that roads and pipes and rails aren’t like iPhones, right? I guess not, because we keep delaying maintenance and then delaying it some more. The result is often heartbreaking: injury and death. Not to mention the potholes, service slowdowns, etc. We keep being distracted by shiny things instead of treating what we have with the care it deserves, and the results are predictably awful. Remember the Simpsons Monorail episode? Yeah, we clearly have not learned anything from Brockway, Ogdenville, or North Haverbrook.
Simpsons Monorail GIF
The worst part is, it’s all avoidable. How in the world are we now accepting death (!!!) as a thing that happens due to our infrastructure? I don’t get it.

Over a decade ago, when I was a grad student, I remember having anxious conversations with classmates and profs about the deferred maintenance of our roads. A couple notes about that:
1- Evidently, transportation planners are very dorky worrywarts, even when drinking after-hours.
2- In retrospect, our fears were adorably quaint.
The Worst Case Scenario we envisioned was this: all these D and F graded roads and bridges will one day result in a bridge collapse with one or more deaths. After that, people will wake up, smell the proverbial coffee, and raise the gas tax to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. Maintenance will resume, and we will all go back to driving without anxiously thinking about the grade of the bridges and culverts we depend on.

We were half right: a bridge *did* collapse and people *did* die. But then… Nothing. Lawmakers did not rally around the undeniable importance of functioning roads to raise the gas tax. Instead, the gas tax was even reduced in some states. That was in 2007. Since then, more bridges have collapsed, and we are still doing a whole lot of nothing.

I’m not a water specialist, but it doesn’t take a genius to see a similarly completely avoidable disaster with what just happened in Flint, but compounded by endemic racism. It’s the very definition of “penny wise and pound foolish” not to mention absolutely devastating to that community for many decades to come. Anyone who says they didn’t realize the pipes would leach lead is, at best, deluded.

Coming back to transportation, the recent clustermonkeys in the DC metro follow the exact same pattern. (1) build awesome network (note: yes, not a perfect network, but still.) (2) chronically underfund maintenance. (3) act surprised when bad things happen. But (4) still under-react, thereby guaranteeing a repeat in the future.

As you can tell from the tone of this post, I am simultaneously furious, flummoxed, and resigned. The Worst Case Scenario was followed by Worst Case Scenario 2: 2 Bridge 2 Collapse and Worst Case Scenario 3: Now It’s a Derailment, followed by WCS4: Electrical Fire Boogaloo and WCS5: I’ve run out of pithy titles.

So what can we do? It’s simple, really. Maintenance. That means funding and a schedule and assessment and doing all that stuff on the regular forever. Sadly, there is no way to make that sound sexy, or even palatable.
Hey, don’t you wanna pay more for gas? Vote for a tax increase maybe?
How about shutting down service periodically to make improvements?
Oooh, wait, how about pay more taxes for a service you don’t use yourself so that others may enjoy trains that don’t crash and maybe arrive on time once in a while?
I can’t say I’m super surprised that people aren’t rushing headlong to support this. There’s no panacea. Fixing our infrastructure will cost lots of money and take time and be inconvenient. The only way to make this happen is through politics, but unfortunately no one in power seems willing to spend political capital to make maintenance happen. This even though good infrastructure is what allows business to flourish, and even creates jobs in the process. Instead we get dumb knee-jerk reactions like this.

But I’m personally not going to give up. No, there’s no panacea, but if we decide to make it happen, we could bring our infrastructure back to what it was and then some. Expensive, yes, but it’s feasible if we just have the political will to make it so. We need to convince people, and that means making infrastructure sexy, making maintenance attractive.

It means accepting that maintenance is political and advocating for it.

So here’s my pitch: let’s start with the gas tax. The federal gas tax has been 18.4 cents since 1993. In 1993 I wore plaid daily, Pearl Jam was the new hotness, and a pack of cigarettes cost less than $3. (Don’t smoke. It’s bad. I mean it.) Today: plaid is coming back, Eddie Vedder is like a million years old, and cigarettes cost what, $10? But the gas tax is STILL 18.4 cents, which buys a hell of a lot less than it did back then. So please, if it comes up for a vote, just accept a few more cents at the pump. It won’t ever be as easy as it is right now with gas prices being so low. And if it doesn’t come up, bring it up. Ask your elected official. Talk to people about it. We don’t want more deaths, and really even the potholes and slowdowns aren’t fun either. So let’s do something about it: let’s make maintenance sexy.

Pic of brownies
These brownies are supernaturally delicious. Let’s try to make maintenance as attractive as this.

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