20130103

American Infrastructure Continued

I recently ranted about the report card that shows American infrastructure as having mostly C's and D's. I commented that bridges of Illinois were noted as having 18% of its bridges structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. I told you not to panic at this. I still believe you should not panic at this.

I wanted to follow that post with more information (or rant even) and follow up with some questions.

The reality is that there really are significant issues with some of our infrastructure (as I mentioned, I have written to state rep's about some of these; or consider the I-35 bridge for example).  I have also noticed that one of the best ways to get something done is to cause mass hysteria about an issue (in this case, by giving C's and D's; this is the equivalent of making an earthquake movie that has all the extremes that ultimately scare everyone).  In fact, there is an older (but not so old) video that aired on CBS News in August that actually highlights a bridge in New York as being structurally deficient. You can see the video here. I imagine if all states could get reporters to highlight extreme cases like this for all sorts of infrastructure issues, they'd be in mass hysteria heaven.  I get it, I really do, but, I don’t necessarily agree with it.  You should not assume that simply because I rant about something, I do not see the value of it. It sounds hypocritical, contradictory, and very fence-sitter-like (which I can be).  Maybe it is all these things, but I have a point here. I understand why there is a report card, I understand the hysteria of why America received C's and D's, I understand the goal; but I still think America deserves something better than C’s and D’s.  Let me get into this…

Going back to the structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges, I cannot comment on what 18% of Illinois bridges actually consists of (for example is that 18 bridges/100 or 1800 bridges/10000), nor can I comment on which bridges are included in that 18% (as in, the bridge you take every day or the bridge no one knows about out by Farmer Joe’s place). I can comment on what structurally deficient and functionally obsolete are, so let me start there and tell you.

Generally speaking, the terms structurally deficient and functionally obsolete are terms created by the federal government in order to assist in determining the needs of repair or replacement.  There is actually an equation used to determine structurally deficiency of bridges.  This equation created by the Federal Highway Administration takes into account a variety of factors.  The basic result is that all load carrying elements are inspected, given a value and input into the equation that gives the bridge an overall score.  Simply because a bridge is deemed “deficient” does not mean it is unsafe, but it does typically mean that it will require significant repairs and maintenance.

A functionally obsolete bridge is one that was designed and built to meet a specific need that is no longer the need of today.  For example, let’s say that the need of the bridge was to carry two lanes of traffic, each lane being 8’ wide.  By today’s standards, lanes must be 12’ wide, and so the bridge could be considered functionally obsolete as you cannot fit (2) 12’ lanes within the current structure.  Simply because a bridge is deemed “functionally obsolete” does not mean it is unsafe, but it does mean that any major improvements would require the bridge to be brought up to today’s codes and standards (not unlike older homes).

Something not listed in the report card (or as far as I could find) is a bridge that is considered “fracture critical”.  This is the kind of bridge that does not have a redundancy with supporting elements.  That is another blog for another time, but again, simply because a bridge is deemed as “fracture critical” does not mean that it is unsafe.

So knowing this information, about how structurally deficient bridges are defined, I'm more concerned how many of those are "extreme" cases which actually result in "unsafe" bridges.  If we were grading on "extreme" cases, would our grade be different?  Again, are we grading on a curve (compare ourselves to other nations)?  To me, all these things matter.  If we don't have the whole story, can we really grade ourselves well?  Is it fair to grade ourselves in such a way that people (who actually pay attention, so, like 2 of us) will worry?  Is this the only way to get attention of politicians?
 
In the end, none of this matters.  I'm whining about a wasteful topic.  It doesn't matter than we grade ourselves.  It doesn't matter than we try to use these grades for good.  There are far more important topics to discuss and resolve (trust me, all of which I have loads of opinions on, maybe blogs for later dates).  I can only say I whine about this because it's a topic near to my heart (and the 2012 report card is coming out now).  I think it's a shame that we work so hard to provide Americans all the best and yet we are so harsh on ourselves.  But, I suppose, there is such a thing as "job security"?

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