We’re spending on the wrong type of infrastructure

Instead of bailing out auto companies we should have invested in transit and railroads

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TORONTO, ON Aug 28, 2015/ Troy Media/ – The discussion about infrastructure is important for our cities. We have dangerous bridges, roads with pot holes that wreck our cars, poor transit and lots of emergency facilities in need of repair. Many emergency facilities are located in flood plains.

But some dangerous infrastructure is even scarier than the bridges that have collapsed. The folks who wrote Louisville, Kentucky’s emergency plan have identified unsafe dams.

What’s really scary is that six inches of water can knock a person to the ground. A few more inches and cars will float on the water. Imagine what a tall wall of water can do to a city and how quickly the water can move. Many wood frame homes are not bolted to their foundations and are a pushover. Urban debris can clog up sewers, form dams and cause impassible streets.

Apparently there are about 2,000 unsafe dams in America. That’s out of about 77,000 in the national inventory, and as of about the year 2000. About 3 per cent are owned by the U.S. federal government. Many are really old. Twenty per cent were completed in the 18th century. Forty years is the average age of a dam.

Most worrying is the proximity of many of these dams to urban areas. More than 1,500 are within one mile of a downstream city. A dam failure would mean the city could be awash in seconds. A little more than 80 per cent of all American dams are made of earth. That probably also means vegetation, rotting organic matter and even garbage is part of the dam. This makes for instability.

No politician can rustle up a wave of support by campaigning to make that dam upstream from the city a little safer. Who cares? It’s out of sight and mind. In fact, most politicians these days get elected by promising to do less, cut taxes, reduce government, and give the private sector its head. That’s fine, except for the 3 per cent of dames owned by the federal government and who knows how many owned by a state or city. And does giving the private sector its head also mean giving them the freedom to endanger others?

Dams are important. The Tennessee Valley Authority was a New Deal project to prevent flooding. Many of the dams also generate electricity, helping farmers do debilitating work and live longer. With rural electrification came home appliances, paid for on time on the electric bills. Dams also provide recreation facilities, boating and cottages. Dams are a source of fresh water. You may have seen the news stories from California about the danger when they dry up.

We’ve made some terrible mistakes in North America. We neglected train travel. We bet on the car. We subsidized highways, cars and trucks. History, you may say. But the 2008 bail out and investment in infrastructure was an investment in the past, in my view. I was driving between Chicago, Boston and Richmond, Virginia after the financial meltdown and saw firsthand the road construction, new on and off-ramps, twinning, widening and resurfacing. It made me sad. I thought we should have invested in the future high speed rail or even regular rail. We once had among the fastest trains in the world on this continent and Canada once had more rolling stock than any country. At least one auto manufacturer was in a consortium that made locomotives and Bombardier still owns a small remaining piece of the Pullman Company which made railroad cars.

Instead of bailing out auto companies to make cars and subsidizing them a second time with road construction, I wish we’d invested in twin-tracking railroad tracks where possible. Freight trains are running about at capacity in North America and we could use more. Twin-tracking might leave a little space for passenger trains. Auto manufacturers could also build subway cars, busses and trains which might have left a lasting legacy of the bail out and infrastructure investment. As of now, we have nice highways that are now about half-way to needing resurfacing. The cars bought during the auto bail out have long been traded in or are in junk yards.

Oh, I almost forgot as I was drawn into the romance of train travel. The other thing that should have been done with public money during the 2008 meltdown was a major overhaul of dangerous infrastructure such as dams and bridges. This would not have been very romantic, but would have allows us to sleep a little easier in the upper berth, preferably.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safe Cities.

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